An Unshakable Kingdom: How Cognitive Dissonance Explains Christianity

“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”[1]

L’Ascension by Gustave Doré

Introduction: The Problem of Realized Eschatology

There’s something strange about the New Testament, and most of us are so used to it that we don’t realize how strange it is.

In many ways the New Testament shares an outlook that was widespread in first-century Judaism, an outlook that looked forward to the very near future as the climax of history, the time when evil would be overturned once and for all and divine justice would finally prevail throughout the earth.

And yet over and over again, the writers of the New Testament talk as if the climax of history has already in some sense happened. In the past tense. The end of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11). Satan has been cast out (Jn 12:31). The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered; and now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah have come (Rev 5:5; 12:10).

This is what biblical scholars refer to as realized or inaugurated eschatology.[2] It’s a fundamental part of the early church’s worldview.[3] And to most Christians today, conditioned as they are by 2,000 years of Christian theology, it seems totally normal.

But in the world that Christianity came from, the world of first-century Judaism, to talk about God’s eschatological reign as something already established was not normal.[4] Because to talk about the kingdom of God in that world was to talk about a comprehensive transformation that had to happen in real life—not just in the hearts of believers or in the politics of heaven, but in this world. So to say that God’s kingdom has come when the dead were still in their graves, Israel was still living under the heel of pagan oppression, and creation was still subject to death and decay, would just sound like pie in the sky to most devout Jews in that period.

The influential New Testament scholar N. T. Wright drives this point home at the beginning of his book Jesus and the Victory of God by putting it in the form of a question. Wright asks, “Would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed, and Israel’s sins forgiven? That the long-awaited ‘new exodus’ had happened?… Or—in other words—that the exile was really over?”[5]

The answer, in most cases at least, is clearly no.

N. T. Wright

And yet that’s precisely what the earliest Christians were saying. That was the essence of their good news. As Wright himself says elsewhere, the earliest Christians “lived, spoke and wrote with the presupposition that an event had occurred through which Israel’s God, the creator, had returned at last and had, through his chosen Messiah, won the decisive battle against the real enemy—even though this ‘return’, and this ‘battle’ and ‘victory’, were now seen quite differently to what we find in earlier Jewish expectations. They believed that, through this messianic achievement, the long exile was over, the great Sabbath had dawned, the ‘new Temple’ had been built (consisting of Jesus and his followers) and the creator God, through Messiah Jesus, had established his sovereign rule over the world, however paradoxical this might seem in terms of continuing persecution and struggle.”[6]

This is a big part of what makes the New Testament so strange and surprising. Most Jewish groups of the time didn’t talk like this. And so the big question is: Why did the followers of Jesus talk like this? How do we account for this remarkable feature of early Christian belief?

An Inadequate Explanation

For believing scholars like Wright, the answer is blindingly obvious: Jesus really did rise from the dead, God really did pour out his Spirit on his followers, and all of that really was the fulfillment, however surprisingly, of ancient Jewish kingdom expectations.

Part of the reason many find this answer unsatisfying, however, is that we’re talking about a belief that people held 2,000 years ago, and the history of the past 2,000 years has made that belief harder and harder to hold onto without completely emptying it of its original Jewish, eschatological meaning.

As one reviewer of Wright’s big book on Jesus puts it, “if the features of first-century life make it impossible to credit that the Jews of that period believed that the exile had ended, do not the features of human life from Easter Monday until the present make it equally impossible to believe that Jesus as the messiah had brought the exile to an end and inaugurated the reign of God?”[7]

Or to echo New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen, shouldn’t the day after “the day of the Lord” look a little different from the day before?[8]

Of course, the New Testament doesn’t claim that everything has already been fulfilled and there’s nothing more to come. Not by a long shot. But that’s part of the problem. There’s something unsettling (to put it mildly) about the structure of early Christian eschatology. The way the New Testament writers split the eschaton into two different stages, with the first, past stage accomplishing mostly spiritual, intangible things like the the forgiveness of sins, the new covenant, and the gift of the Spirit, while leaving most of the more concrete and substantial things traditionally associated with the kingdom, like the destruction of death and the restoration of creation, in the still unrealized future, just seems a little too convenient, a little too ad hoc.

If we picture the promises of the prophets as a cake, it’s like God chose to cut out the tiniest sliver of a piece for all the guests at the party to share while keeping 99% of the cake for some vaguely rumored after-party that never seems to come. Why would God split the eschaton up in such a way that the already fulfilled portions look phenomenologically indistinguishable from the subjective claims of countless other religious movements, while leaving the real substance of his promises perpetually out of reach?

So for these and other reasons, the traditional view leaves a lot to be desired.

But is there a better explanation? One that actually fits with what we know of messianic and apocalyptic movements more generally, and one that doesn’t require us to orient our plausibility structures around something so entirely without analogy? Is there an explanation with both explanatory scope and explanatory power that doesn’t feel like a bait and switch?

Cognitive Dissonance and Prophetic Failure

Biblical scholars and theologians often resist cross-disciplinary solutions to the problems in their field, but the past 65 years has witnessed a tremendous advance in social psychology, an advance that carries profound implications for the study of how Christianity began and why it took the particular shape it did. I’m referring, of course, to Cognitive Dissonance Theory, and for the rest of this essay I want to look at how this counterintuitive feature of human psychology helps explain why the first Christians came to believe that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s eschatological reign had begun.

But first, what is Cognitive Dissonance Theory?

While the term “cognitive dissonance” has recently become very popular—thanks in part to a deeply divided political climate that seems to supply endless examples of the phenomenon—the theory behind it is less widely understood.

The term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the state of mental discomfort or tension that people experience when their beliefs, values, or behaviors come into conflict with their experience of the world, or when they hold two ideas that are psychologically at odds with each other.[9] Cognitive Dissonance Theory, or CDT, is a prediction about how people tend to respond to that state of discomfort, how we avoid mental conflict and try to reduce it when it occurs.

According to CDT, the more important a belief is to a person or a group’s identity, and the more they commit themselves to that belief, the harder they will work to protect that belief from dissonance or try to reduce existing dissonance without abandoning that belief.[10] CDT seeks to explain why we so often double down and cling to our beliefs, even when confronted by overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

CDT was first introduced by social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter in their famous study of a doomsday cult in the mid 1950s. That study had some flaws, mostly due to the limitations of its methodology, but it opened up a whole new field of research among social psychologists, historians, and sociologists of religion.[11] And as Jon R. Stone concluded in a 2011 survey of that field,

Leon Festinger

“An interesting aspect of the research that has been conducted thus far is that the original thesis that was put forward in 1956 by Leon Festinger and his team of researchers has held true: despite obvious and unequivocal disconfirmation, believers tend to respond to failed prophecy in ways that reaffirm their faith.”[12]

That in itself is remarkable, and highly relevant to Christian origins, since Christian apologists often claim that if it weren’t for Jesus’ actual resurrection, the disciples could not have maintained their faith in him as the Messiah after his death. The evidence of literally dozens upon dozens of messianic and apocalyptic movements shows this claim to be naïve.

But aside from confirming Festinger’s central thesis, the past 65 years of research has added significant depth to the question of exactly how apocalyptic movements tend to reaffirm their faith after such apparent disconfirmations. And according to that research, one of the primary ways, if not the primary way, such groups overcome dissonance is by reinterpreting their prophecies to better fit with the unexpected course of history through a process of “spiritualization”.

In order to see what this usually looks like in practice, let’s take a look at one of the most well-known examples of failed prophecy. Let’s look at the Millerites and their response to the “Great Disappointment” of 1844.

Great Disappointment or Partial Fulfillment?

The Millerites were a group of Protestant Christians that emerged from the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening with a shared conviction that Jesus must be returning very soon.[13] Their leader, a Baptist preacher named William Miller, came to the conclusion from reading the book of Daniel that the Second Coming would occur sometime in 1843 or 1844.[14]

Miller shared his views widely throughout the 1830s and found a growing audience as the expected year drew nearer. And as Miller and his followers searched the Scriptures they eventually homed in on the precise day of Jesus’ return. The Lord would descend from heaven and set up his eternal kingdom on October 22, 1844. 

Many Millerites were so committed to this date that they gave away most of their property. Farmers didn’t bother planting crops for the next harvest, business owners closed their businesses, and parents pulled their kids out of school. Some even gave away their houses or withdrew all their savings and laid it all on the altar of their local churches as a sign of their faith in Christ’s imminent coming.

But of course, October 22 came and went, and (to quote the scoffers of 2 Peter 3) all things continued as they have since the beginning of creation. And so the Millerites were left completely dejected. As one leader of the movement, a man named Hiram Edson, later wrote of that night:

“Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”

Now if we were to follow the common sense folk psychology of many Christian apologists, we’d expect that to spell the end of the Millerite movement. And in a sense it was. The fact that they had rested their hopes on such a specific prediction, and that that prediction was so unequivocally falsified, presented a huge stumbling block to their faith, and the movement simply couldn’t continue like it had before.

But as the French theologian Alfred Loisy once wrote, “faith has a way of procuring for herself all the illusions she needs for the conservation of her present possessions and for her advance to further conquests.”[15] For many Millerites, the apparent non-event of October 22 had the eventual and paradoxical effect of actually strengthening their commitment to the core beliefs of the movement. Somehow they found a way to absorb the shock of the great disappointment and transform their failed expectation into a surprising partial fulfillment.

Here’s what happened: The day after the Great Disappointment, after staying up all night weeping, Hiram Edson was walking through a cornfield to avoid the jeers of his unbelieving neighbors when he had what he described as a vision in which he was given a revelation from heaven.

Hiram Edson’s Vision

The message of the vision, according to Edson, was that Christ had not failed to fulfill his promise, but that the Millerites had simply misunderstood a key point of the prophecy. They had assumed that Christ was coming to the earth, but one of the foundational texts of the movement, Daniel 8:14, referred to the cleansing of the sanctuary, and Edson now understood that the “sanctuary” referred not to an earthly sanctuary but to the heavenly sanctuary. After all, didn’t the New Testament teach that the sanctuary in Jerusalem was a mere shadow and copy of the eternal sanctuary in heaven?

So instead of Christ returning to earth on October 22, 1844, that date marked the moment when he, as the great high priest, entered the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary in preparation for his return to earth. Thus the apparent non-fulfillment was, for those with eyes to see, actually a powerful partial fulfillment and a guarantee of their future hope.

Soon after Edson’s experience, a woman named Ellen Harmon had a series of visions which she and many other Millerites took to confirm the “heavenly sanctuary” idea. Harmon is better known now by her married name, Ellen G. White, the founder and prophet of Seventh-Day Adventism. Today there are over 25 million Seventh-Day Adventists in over 200 countries, making it one of the most widespread Protestant denominations, and the doctrine of Christ’s heavenly coming in 1844 has been a central pillar of their theology for over 170 years.

It’s almost impossible to overemphasize how typical this story is. What happened with the Millerites is what happens time and time again in apocalyptic movements after the failure of their expectations. While it’s not the only way such groups respond to dissonance, it is one of the primary ways. The religious historian J. Gordon Melton summarizes this response perfectly in his influential 1985 study of apocalyptic movements. According to Melton:

“Whenever a prophecy fails, groups consistently engage in one activity—they reconceptualize the prophecy in such a way that the element of ‘failure,’ particularly the failure of the Divine to perform as promised, is removed. While a group may, temporarily, assume an error in timing, the ultimate and more permanent reconceptualization is most frequently accomplished through a process of ‘spiritualization.’ The prophesied event is reinterpreted in such a way that what was supposed to have been a visible, verifiable occurrence is seen to have been in reality an invisible, spiritual occurrence. The event occured as predicted, only on a spiritual level.”[16]

Notice how effective this move was for the Millerites. By turning the apparent failure of October 22 into a partial, heavenly fulfillment instead of the concrete, this-worldly consummation they previously expected, and by attributing the failure to their own prior understanding instead of to the core belief itself, they accomplished several things at once. They safeguarded the substance of their prior expectations by projecting the most concrete and significant aspects of that hope into the unfulfilled future. But they also safeguarded the significance of the predicted time of fulfillment by turning it into a preliminary spiritual fulfillment instead of a complete non-event. And by cutting the eschatological cake in exactly this way, making the “already” aspects mostly heavenly and spiritual and the “not yet” aspects mostly concrete and this-worldly, they found a simple but psychologically compelling way to reaffirm their faith while also making it unfalsifiable.

While the beliefs and expectations of different apocalyptic groups can vary quite widely from one another, the same basic structure of this response has been observed again and again across many different religious and cultural lines. Whether we’re looking at other Christian offshoots like the Jehovah’s Witnesses[17] or the followers of Harold Camping,[18] or Jewish messianic groups like the followers of Sabbatai Ṣevi[19] or Rabbi Menachem Schneerson,[20] or even groups on completely different evolutionary trees like the Central Highland cargo cult of New Guinea[21]—in all these cases and many others besides, believers doubled down and found a way to turn an embarrassing disconfirmation into a mysterious and surprising partial fulfillment.

Dissonance and the Kingdom

So what does this all have to do with the origins of Christianity? Well, for one thing, based on what we can tell from the earliest sources, the situation of the disciples in the days after Jesus’ death was very similar to that of the Millerites and other apocalyptic movements.[22]

They came to Jerusalem expecting the kingdom of God to appear immediately, a kingdom in which all the saints would be raised, the wicked would be judged, Jesus would be given authority over all the earth, and the disciples would rule by his side as representatives of the restored twelve tribes of Israel. But that didn’t happen, and instead Jesus was captured and crucified by the same wicked authorities that the Messiah was supposed to overthrow.[23]

So the disciples were faced with the same alternative as other apocalyptic groups after the failure of their expectations: either give up the cause completely, or find a creative way to adapt their expectations to reality while still maintaining the core of their faith. And as Dissonance Theory shows, this wasn’t much of a choice.

Pentecost (detail) by El Greco

Now the New Testament doesn’t give us the kind of first-person access into the minds of the disciples that we get from, say, the journals of Hiram Edson or Ellen G. White, but we can see the effects of that fateful period in the distinct ways that early Christian thought diverged from its Jewish apocalyptic roots. And it’s at precisely these points that CDT has the most to offer, because many of the distinct developments of early Christian thought just so happen to follow the same pattern of dissonance-reducing activity that appears again and again in other apocalyptic movements in similar situations. And nowhere is this pattern more evident than in the strange and surprising phenomenon of early Christian realized eschatology. 

Just think back to the N. T. Wright quote we shared earlier. The earliest Christians believed that Israel’s God “had returned at last” and that the Messiah “had won the decisive battle against the real enemy—even though this ‘return’, and this ‘battle’ and ‘victory’, were now seen quite differently to what we find in earlier Jewish expectations.” They believed that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, “the long exile was over, the great Sabbath had dawned, the ‘new temple’ had been built (consisting of Jesus and his followers),” and God “had established his sovereign rule over the world, however paradoxical this might seem in terms of continuing persecution and struggle.” 

Wright is no friend of Cognitive Dissonance Theory,[24] but you honestly couldn’t find a better expression of what CDT predicts than this. And yet the parallels go even deeper than Wright’s summary inadvertently suggests. In fact we can trace these parallels along at least four different lines:

First, just as the Millerites took the very thing that caused them the most embarrassment, the apparent non-event of October 22, 1844, and transformed that into something to be celebrated and memorialized, so too with the early Christians: the belief that Jesus had been resurrected up to heaven allowed his followers to find a powerful new meaning in his death. It enabled them to turn the horror of his crucifixion into a paradoxical and mysterious messianic achievement, so that even the exact opposite of what they expected could be seen as a fulfillment of their larger kingdom expectations. It allowed them to take the very thing that seemed to disconfirm their beliefs, the biggest stumbling block and folly to outsiders, and boldly make that the cornerstone of their revised beliefs.[25]

Second, by splitting the Jewish expectation of resurrection, and the eschaton more generally, into two separate stages, so that the individual resurrection of the Messiah comes first as a kind of preview and guarantee of the resurrection of all his people in the very near future, the early Jesus movement mutated along the exact same lines as other apocalyptic groups when subjected to the same selective pressures. The cutting up and multiplying of events into “already” and “not yet” categories is a classic way of dealing with eschatological delay.[26]

And just as the Millerites safeguarded their faith by making the “already” aspects of their expectations mostly heavenly and spiritual and the “not yet” aspects mostly concrete and this-worldly, so the New Testament writers, whenever they talk about the present reality of the kingdom, they talk about it in terms of Christ’s exaltation to the right hand of God in heaven, sending the Spirit, establishing a new covenant, and other largely nonempirical events, while leaving more concrete aspects of Jewish expectation (like the salvation of Israel, the general resurrection, and the restoration of creation) firmly in the future, to be fulfilled at the second coming.[27] In other words, it’s not just the fact that the early Christians cut the eschaton up that’s suspicious, but also the precise way that they distributed the pieces.

Third, the New Testament writers habitually reinterpret Old Testament prophecies along these same lines, finding the most malleable parts fulfilled in the birth of the Christian movement while again projecting the most substantial parts into the future. So passages like the famous “new covenant” prophecy from Jeremiah 31, which for Jeremiah speaks of an inward regeneration that will accompany the outward restoration of Israel, for the early Christians becomes a prophecy about the spiritual achievement of Christ’s death and resurrection, and so the “new covenant” gets completely disconnected from the more tangible, this-worldly parts of the prophecy, which clearly remain outstanding.[28]

Or how about the New Testament’s use of Psalm 110? In context, the psalmist is simply recalling promises of victory made to the Davidic dynasty and elaborating them. For the Davidic king to sit at God’s right hand just means that he rules as God’s representative and holds the place of highest honor. But for the early Christians these words came to mean so much more. By taking the image of the Davidic king sitting at God’s right hand in literal spatial terms so that it refers to Jesus, as the Messiah, being exalted to God’s right hand in heaven, they were able to “find” an explanation in Scripture for Jesus’ ongoing physical absence and thereby turn that potential bug into a feature.[29] And where Psalm 110 speaks of the king taking that position until he subjugates all his enemies, the early Christians found biblical support for seeing their own time in “already but not yet” terms.[30] The Messiah has taken the throne, even though the full, visible outworking of his victory remains outstanding.

We could cite dozens of other texts that the New Testament reappropriates in similar ways, but you get the point. Just as the Millerites reinterpreted Daniel 8:14 so that it spoke of a heavenly inauguration instead of an earthly consummation, so the early Christians reinterpreted key amenable texts along the exact same lines. Nobody had ever read these texts in that way before, but necessity is the mother of invention, and when their hopes failed to materialize, the first Christians found themselves reading backwards from their experience to the biblical traditions, and this process yielded what Yonina Talmon calls a “secondary exegesis” of those traditions,[31] a fresh interpretation that enabled them to stretch the sacred canopy of their worldview beyond anything previously imagined, so that all of the pain and ambiguity of their experience and the indefinite delay of their hopes could be found within the purview of God’s perfect plan.

Fourth and finally, just as the Millerites justified all of these reinterpretive moves by concluding that they had simply misunderstood the true meaning of the prophecies, so too with the early Christians. Again and again we find this theme of misunderstanding throughout the Gospels. And it always comes at these pivotal moments where Jesus is portrayed as predicting his death and resurrection and redefining the kingdom.[32] Moments like in Mark 10, where Jesus is talking about how he’s going to die, and yet the disciples are arguing about who gets to sit next to him in the kingdom. Or in John 2, where Jesus is talking about how his body is going to be destroyed and raised up in three days, and yet they think he’s talking about the destruction and restoration of the Jerusalem temple. Despite being his closest companions in the most crucial period of his life, the disciples are consistently portrayed as completely missing what Jesus was really doing and what the essence of his kingdom expectation was really all about until after his death and resurrection.

Historical Jesus scholars have long found this justification hard to swallow, since it explicitly pits an earlier understanding of Jesus and his mission (one which the disciples held while he was still alive and accessible to the public) against a later understanding (which they only came to after his death, when it was most convenient), and it asks us to just take their word for it.[33] That alone should raise some big red flags.

But when we compare the Gospels to the literature of other movements like the Millerites, we begin to see not only how common this move is, but also how the claim of misunderstanding functions as a dissonance reduction strategy. As J. Gordon Melton puts it, by reinterpreting the prophecy and attributing the element of failure to their own flawed understanding, “the group saves the prophecy from failure, retains its close connection with cosmic history, and provides the condition under which its work can continue… The payment for such a spiritualization is low, the mere admission of a slight error in perception, a readily acceptable human failure. The price is small compared with the loss of both face in the community and the intimate relationship with the cosmos implied in admitting that the prophecy might have failed. For the group, prophecy does not fail—it is merely misunderstood.”[34]


It would take a study much longer than this one to really do justice to the four points just outlined, but hopefully this was enough to show why early Christian eschatology developed in some of the strange and surprising ways that it did. Traditional explanations for these developments usually leave us with more questions than answers, and they are often guilty of trying to fit the evidence into a predetermined set of conclusions, conclusions that require Christianity to be free from the kind of historical comparisons we’ve seen here.

But the parallels are too close and too many to be ignored. As New Testament scholar Dale Allison has said, “much that went on in the early church can profitably be compared to much that has gone on elsewhere in groups looking for an imminent redemption. Theology cannot ignore this fact. It will not go away.”[35] And as we’ve seen, this is especially true of the early church’s realized eschatology. What might otherwise seem like a complete anomaly makes perfect sense once we view it as the product of a widely attested tendency that all human beings share, a tendency to cling to our deeply held beliefs when they come into conflict with reality and rationalize away the conflict instead of letting go.

Faced with the dissonance between expectation and reality, the early Christians doubled down on their commitment to the belief that Jesus was Israel’s true Messiah and that as the Messiah he was inaugurating the reign of God, but in doing so they had to radically modify their ideas about what that reign would look like and how the Messiah would bring it about.[36] Before his death, Jesus’ followers looked forward to a kingdom that would change everything. After his death, they took refuge in a kingdom that could not be changed by anything. And that, perhaps more than anything else, explains both the triumph and the tragedy of Christianity.


1. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 3.

2. The classic text on realized eschatology is C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments: Three Lectures, intro. by Ernest F. Scott (Chicago: Willet, Clark & Co., 1937).

3. See especially Dale C. Allison Jr., The End of the Ages Has Come: An Early Interpretation of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 26-61.

4. Partial parallels to early Christian realized eschatology can be seen in the meal of the Essene community in 1QS VI, 4-6, which appears to be deliberately patterned after the messianic banquet described in 1QSa, and in Jubilees 23, which appears to place the great tribulation wholly in the past. But as Allison (Ages, 91) argues, “In teaching that the Messiah has come, that resurrections have taken place (Matt. 27:51b-53), that the sun has hidden its face (Mark 15:33), and that the judgment has been accomplished (John 3:15; 5:24; 12:31), the New Testament does set itself apart. There is really no adequate parallel to the claim that the decisive turning point lies in the past.”

5. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), xvii-xviii.

6. Wright, History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (London: SPCK, 2019), 195.

7. C. S. Rodd, Review of N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Expository Times 108, 1997), 226.

8. Paula Fredriksen, Review of N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 77, 2015), 388.

9. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), 1-4.

10. Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails, 3-4.

11. For a good selection of studies on how groups respond to failed prophecy, see Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, ed. Jon R. Stone (New York: Routledge, 2000).

12. “The Festinger Theory on Failed Prophecy and Dissonance: A Survey and Critique,” in How Prophecy Lives, ed. Diana Tumminia and William H. Swatos (Brill, 2011), 44.

13. For a classic study of the environment that gave birth to the Millerite movement, which has many striking parallels to the apocalyptic and messianic fervor of the first century, see Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Cornell University Press, 1950).

14. For all that follows on the Millerites, see George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World: A Study of Millerite Adventism (Boise: Pacific Press, 1993).

15. Alfred Loisy, The Birth of the Christian Religion (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1948) 98.

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

17. Joseph F. Zygmunt, “Prophetic Failure and Chiliastic Identity: The Case of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” American Journal of Sociology, May 1970, Vol. 75, No. 6.

18. Charles Sarno, Benjamin Shestakofsky, Helen Shoemaker, and Rebecca Aponte, “Rationalizing Judgment Day: A Content Analysis of Harold Camping’s Open Forum Program,” Sociology of Religion, 2015, 76:2.

19. Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Ṣevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

20. Simon Dein, Lubavitcher Messianism: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails?, Continuum Studies in Jewish Thought (London/New York: Continuum, 2011).

21. Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1957).

22. John G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 41-43; Hugh Jackson, “The Resurrection Belief of the Earliest Church: A Response to the Failure of Prophecy?,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 1975), 418-19. By focusing on the expectations of the disciples rather than on those of Jesus himself, I hope to bypass Allison’s argument (Ages, 164-65) that “no cause for dissonance existed” in the disciples prior to the resurrection appearances because Jesus’ death “agreed perfectly” with what he had predicted. Allison’s argument deserves a longer response, but suffice to say here (a) that Jesus and the disciples were not necessarily on the same page here, and (b) whether or not Jesus anticipated his death, the sources unanimously portray the disciples as completely blindsided by the event.

23. David E. Aune, “Christian Beginnings and Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” in Jesus, Gospel Tradition, and Paul in the Context of Jewish and Greco-Roman Antiquity: Collected Essays II, ed. David E. Aune (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 165; Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, “The Process of Jesus’ Deification and Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” Numen 64 (Brill, 2017), 127.

24. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 697-701; cf. Bermejo-Rubio, “Process,” 126: “This stance seems to be dictated by theological prejudices and fears.”

25. This is why, contra Allison (Ages, 164-65), the novel belief that the Messiah has been raised in advance of the general resurrection would not further aggravate, but rather bring cathartic resolution, to the mental anguish of the disciples after Jesus’ death. In fact the resurrection perfectly fits Festinger’s idea (Theory, 21-22) of a “new cognitive element” that “reconciles” or “reduces the total magnitude” of dissonance, precisely because of what it achieves. The value of the resurrection, psychologically, is that it allows the true believer to remain a true believer, so far from failing, God’s promises have already started to come to pass.

26. Zygmunt, “Prophetic Failure,” 71-73.

27. In addition to the relevant NT texts, see, e.g., Albert Schweitzer, The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity (New York: Seabury, 1968), 162: “In late Jewish eschatology…the transformation [of the eschaton] is thought of as taking place suddenly. Paul, on the other hand, is led to think of it as a process that takes time. He is therefore able to see the time that intervenes between the resurrection of Jesus and his return as that of the invisible development of the Kingdom which has been in existence ever since his resurrection.”

28. Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 610-14.

29. Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History (New York: T&T Clark, 2021), 194-6.

30. Alexander E. Stewart, “The Temporary Messianic Kingdom in Second Temple Judaism and the Delay of the Parousia: Psalm 110:1 and the Development of Early Christian Inaugurated Eschatology,” JETS 59/2 (2016), 268: “Psalm 110:1 provided the earliest Christians with an OT prophetic interpretation of the period of time between Jesus’s first and second comings. Why had Jesus ascended? Why did he not establish the new heavens and new earth right then? Psalm 110:1 answered these questions.”

31. Tonina Talmon, “Pursuit of the Millennium: The Relation Between Religious and Social Change,” Archives européenes de sociologie 3 (1962), 133.

32. On the motif of misunderstanding in the Gospels as a dissonance-reduction strategy, see Allison, Ages, 52-5.

33. H. S. Reimarus, Reimarus: Fragments, ed. Charles H. Talbert (London: SCM Press, 1971), 130-4. The Fragments were first published after Reimarus’s death in 1774-78. Talbert notes that “Reimarus’s judgment against the historicity of the passion predictions has been largely upheld by modern research” (Fragments, 132, n. 41).

34. Melton, “Spiritualization,” 151.

35. Allison, Ages, 178.

36. Carroll, When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament (New York: Seabury, 1979), 216: “There was no public fulfillment of prophecy (i.e. clear, unequivocal and demonstrable to the public at large): no David occupied the throne, there was no transformation of nature or the nations, the enemies of Israel had not been destroyed, universal peace and prosperity had not set in nor was the temple the focus for international worship. Yet in so far as there existed a small community that believed prophecy had been fulfilled there dissonance had been overcome. It is a classical example of fulfillment by reinterpretation of all the basic premises and by redefinition of all the ground rules. It avoids dissonance by emptying the original terms of their content and provides a linguistic account of fulfillment by matching the original set of expectations to an entirely different set of explanations. It provides the unexpected as the fulfillment of the expected and so constitutes a radical discontinuity as the means of maintaining continuity.”

On the Unity and Diversity of the Biblical Witness Concerning Hell and Final Judgment

Author’s note: One of the last major theological shifts I made before my deconversion was from annihilationism (or conditional immortality) to universalism (or ultimate reconciliation). The following paragraphs were originally intended to be the first chapter of a book I was writing on the biblical merits of universalism. I abandoned that project when I left the faith in 2015, and if I were to write on the subject today it would inevitably look very different, but I still think there is some practical value here for Christians who find themselves struggling with this issue like I was. While I’m no longer a Christian, I still think this is one of the most promising ways of approaching the question of hell and final judgment from within the Christian faith.

“There can be no doubt that the desire for a neat and simple argument in support of a truth may dispose even able men to offer some little violence to evidence that points in the direction of complexity. What we consider neatness and simplicity is not always a characteristic of Divine working, or Divine teaching. A passion for simplicity of statement has often blinded men to facts that indicated more complexity than might at first have been supposed.” — Edward White1

The Basic Task

Introductions to studying the Bible usually begin with a description of the basic task of the interpreter. This basic task is called exegesis, which means “to lead out of”. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart define it in their classic handbook, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, exegesis is “the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible.”2 Others are more cautious in their definition, preferring to speak less in terms of uncovering an author’s “original intent” (which can be difficult to ascertain) and more in terms of achieving “a credible and coherent understanding of the text on its own terms and in its own context.”3 However we define it, following proper exegetical practices does not eliminate ambiguity or guarantee that our interpretations will be correct. It does not end the conversation between the text and its readers. Rather it allows that conversation to take place. 

Being a responsible exegete is like being a good listener. We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who doesn’t have the patience or empathy to hear us out because they think they already know what we’re going to say before we say it. If we’re honest, we’ve probably been that person on more than one occasion. It takes tremendous effort to step outside of ourselves, to lay down our own expectations and preconceived ideas, and to just listen to someone on their own terms. But that’s what we do when we love someone. In the same way, when we come to the sacred text of Scripture, our first priority should not be to get something for ourselves or to find confirmation for what we think it should say, but to simply listen, without pretense, to what the text says.4 Biblical exegesis is an act of empathy: it requires us to step outside of ourselves, outside of our own time and space and likes and dislikes, and into the time and space of others. This is hard to do, not because it requires a special kind of intelligence but because it requires a special kind of love, the kind of love that drives a man to lay down his life for his friends.

Of course, everyone recognizes the necessity of following proper exegetical practices in theory. Evangelicals are united in their allegiance to the Bible as the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice, an allegiance which should entail a very practical commitment to follow the text wherever it leads. The unfortunate reality, however, is that it is often those who have the highest view of biblical authority who are most prone to do violence to the very texts they seek to honor. Like the person who can’t listen because they think they already know what is going to be said, evangelical hermeneutics often entail an auxiliary impulse that sits in tension with, if not in direct contradiction to, the basic task of exegesis. This impulse stems from the widespread evangelical commitment to what has been called “biblicism”.

As Old Testament scholar Peter Enns defines it, biblicism “is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.”5 One of biblicism’s central features is the belief that the Bible must be internally consistent on every subject of which it speaks, every passage fitting together like the individual pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. For something to be “biblical” on this view means there is a single, monolithic thread of teaching that stretches from Genesis to Revelation, and our task as interpreters is to simply locate that thread and call it what it is. The result is an essentially deductive approach to the Bible. If any passage seems to contradict what we believe to be the unified voice of Scripture, we are bound by our prior commitment to explain the apparent contradiction away and harmonize that passage with all the others. “God said it, we believe it, that settles it.”

While the face-value simplicity of this approach is undeniably appealing, in practice it is simply unsustainable. Especially when it comes to difficult questions like hell, questions which require extensive investigation of a broad range of texts from multiple sources in both the Old and New Testaments, biblicists are fundamentally inhibited from letting the biblical authors speak for themselves. The biblicist version of the Bible is a lot like Contemporary Christian Music: easily identifiable melodies, without tensions or discord, filled with clean harmonies. But the Bible we actually have is less like CCM and more like free jazz. It’s a collective improvisation filled with the wailing, clanging, piercing notes of individual instruments playing against the elastic rhythm and timbre of the group. The stubborn fact is that there are many different voices in Scripture, and while there is an overarching melody which gives clarity and cohesion to the whole, the closer we listen the more discord we will hear.     

To cite a rather trivial example of this discord, consider the following two passages. Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-19 present two different accounts of Judas’ death. In Matthew’s account, Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, goes and hangs himself, and then the chief priests buy a field with the money to use as a cemetery. In this account, the fact that the field was paid for with blood money and turned into a cemetery explains why it later became known as the “field of blood”. In Luke’s account, however, Judas himself uses the silver to buy a field, and then he falls head first in that field and bursts open so that his entrails spill out. In this account, the fact that Judas died in the same field that he purchased with blood money explains why it later became known as the “field of blood,” not because the chief priests purchased the field and used it for a cemetery. This is just one out of literally hundreds of examples where the biblical authors do not speak with one voice.6

So the question presses: How are we supposed to be faithful to the biblical witness concerning the death of Judas when Matthew and Luke give two very different accounts of how that event took place? Of course, no two accounts of anything would be completely identical. But if we are honest, these texts do seem to represent two different interpretations of how a particular set of closely related events happened. In order for us to really provide a credible solution here, we must provide an explanation that has a ring of historical plausibility to it. From what I have seen, however, every attempt to harmonize the two passages is far too convoluted to be taken seriously.7 In this case, a prior commitment to finding a unified voice behind Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-19 requires us to bend one of the evangelists’ accounts around the other, thereby failing to listen to them each on their own terms. And while this might not have any major implications for the question of Judas’ death, it certainly would for many other questions, not least the questions of hell and final punishment.

The Harmonization of Hell

Nowhere is the effect of biblicism more strongly felt than in the current debate on the nature of hell. While evangelicals pride themselves on taking Scripture seriously, the strong tendency towards harmonization in evangelical hermeneutics often drives proponents of all three views of hell to do violence to the texts that don’t fit with their conclusions. And since the vast majority of recent books on the subject are written by and for evangelicals—mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians seem much less interested in nailing down dogma about the afterlife—most of the books currently in print share this tendency.8 Here we will briefly consider two of the most influential evangelical authors of the past few decades, Robert A. Peterson and William Edward Fudge, to see how the impulse towards harmonization impacts their respective treatments of the biblical data, but the same lessons could be drawn from any number of evangelical authors.  

Dr. Robert A. Peterson is Professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also one of the most prolific defenders of the traditionalist view of hell as eternal conscious torment, being the author, coauthor, editor, or contributor to at least half a dozen different books and academic articles on the subject.9 His most complete statement is the 1995 book Hell On Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, which John MacArthur praises for “letting the Bible speak plainly for itself”.10 How does Peterson let the Bible speak for itself? By treating it like a giant jigsaw puzzle: 

I am suggesting that the Bible is like a jigsaw puzzle that provides five thousand pieces along with the assurance that these pieces all belong to the same puzzle, even though … pieces … are missing. Most of the pieces that are provided, the instructions insist, fit together rather nicely … the assurance that all of the pieces do belong to one puzzle is helpful, for that makes it possible to develop the systematic theology, even though the systematic theology is not going to be completed until we receive more pieces from the One who made it.11

After providing this quote from D. A. Carson at the start of Hell On Trial’s penultimate chapter, Peterson goes on to explain its value: “The key truth that the puzzle analogy teaches is that the puzzle pieces we have do fit together. Because the Bible is given by God, its doctrines cohere.”12 To be fair, Peterson is speaking in this context of biblical doctrines cohering, not necessarily individual texts. But the way he applies the same principle elsewhere shows how far he is willing to take it. Note the way he deals with the universalist-sounding language of 1 Corinthians 15:28, which speaks of God ultimately being “all in all”:

In fairness I admit that this and similar passages such as Ephesians 1:10 and Philippians 2:9-11, if taken by themselves, are compatible with universalism. It is plain, however, from other verses in the biblical books in which these verses appear, that they are not intended to teach that all will be saved. Universalists argue their case from only a portion of the biblical data. But this line of reasoning must be rejected as unsound theological methodology. To know the Bible’s teaching we must take the whole Bible into account.13 

This is the extent of Peterson’s interaction with these texts. He attempts no exegesis of the passages themselves; he simply rejects the universalist reading on the grounds that it picks and chooses its evidence. Of course Peterson is right to say that individual texts must be understood within the larger contexts of the books in which they appear. But notice he goes further than this. In order to properly understand these three texts, Peterson insists that “we must take the whole Bible into account”—a noble sentiment, but one that in this case amounts to nothing more than a diversion, since the appeal to “the whole Bible” is made in lieu of exegeting these biblical texts. Using the same strategy, a universalist could point out that traditionalists like Peterson argue their case from only a portion of the biblical data, and then proceed to subsume those texts within the controlling framework of their own preferred passages. Clearly, this is a dead-end street.  

Peterson takes the same approach when faced with passages commonly used in support of annihilationism:

Considered in isolation, these verses might seem, at first glance, to teach conditionalism. But they should not be considered in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s teaching. Verses such as Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:42-48; Revelation 14:9-10; 20:10, 14-15 have led church leaders throughout the centuries to believe, teach, and confess the never-ending suffering of the lost.14

One of the annihilationist-sounding texts under consideration here is 2 Peter 2, a passage which compares the final judgment of the wicked to the “extinction” of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:6). Again, Peterson attempts no exegesis of the passage on its own terms; rather, he appeals to a handful of other passages, all in different books by different authors, and argues that 2 Peter 2 should be made to agree with the traditionalist understanding of those verses. Because the Bible is a puzzle, all the pieces must fit together; and because most theologians throughout church history have assembled the puzzle in a certain way, giving preference to some pieces more than others, Peterson thinks we should do likewise.            

A similar strategy is taken by the annihilationist author Edward William Fudge in his 1982 work, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, arguably the most important book on hell of this generation. If evangelicals are more open to questioning traditionalism than they were thirty years ago, it is thanks largely to the detailed and thorough contribution of The Fire That Consumes. Unfortunately, Fudge’s work is plagued by the same problem as Peterson’s. While his exegetical instincts are often on target, Fudge’s prior commitment to a particular view of the Bible sometimes inhibits him, in principle, from following the evidence wherever it leads. This can be seen most clearly by comparing Fudge’s treatment of canonical texts with his treatment of non-canonical texts.

When dealing with non-canonical texts, Fudge employs a consistently grammatical-historical hermeneutic. This means that he is free to acknowledge the different perspectives of individual writers.15 Thus, when he arrives at Judith 16:17, a passage which employs the imagery of Isaiah 66:24 to refer to eternal conscious torment, Fudge is free to point out the discontinuity between the two authors: “Judith is not drawing on Isaiah’s conviction; she is denying it. She is not following Isaiah. She is reversing Isaiah.”16

When it comes to canonical texts, however, Fudge is torn between two poles. On the one hand, he clearly wishes to respect the dignity of individual biblical authors. He speaks repeatedly, for example, of the importance of being sensitive to possible differences of meaning between an Old Testament image and the use of that same image by a New Testament writer.17 On the other hand, Fudge is bound by his prior commitment to a Bible that is “without error in anything that it teaches”.18 So when he is actually faced with the possibility of discord between an Old Testament image and its use in the New Testament, his final recourse is to appeal to the principle of harmonization:  

If we are willing to let the Bible define its own terms, the metaphor of unquenchable fire is easily recognized, immediately understood, and consistently used. No evangelical can logically refuse to allow this of Scripture, for, as J. I. Packer points out, the presupposition that Scripture possesses an “inner coherence and consistency and power to elucidate its own teaching from within itself” is “a controlling principle in all interpretation.”19 

How strange it is, one might wonder, that this “controlling principle” is only ever applied to texts that belong in the Protestant canon. How different from the exegetical method Fudge advocates elsewhere. Is it too much to suppose that, if Judith were included in Fudge’s canon, he would find a way to harmonize it with Isaiah 66 instead of denouncing it as a denial and reversal of Isaiah’s meaning? His treatment of Revelation suggests so. When he gets to Revelation 14:9-11, a passage which by all appearances does the same sort of thing with Isaiah 34 that Judith does with Isaiah 66, and with much more colorful language than Judith, Fudge bends over backwards trying to harmonize that text with his annihilationist reading of the rest of the Protestant canon:

Although simplistic, it is almost fair to say that this whole debate rests finally on one question: should we interpret dozens of straightforward texts throughout the Bible to match the literal sense of two symbolic texts in the Apocalypse, or ought we to interpret the two apocalyptic texts symbolically to conform to the many others?20

Conform—that is the operative word here, and the Achilles heal of Fudge’s whole case for annihilationism. Whereas he is free to acknowledge the differences between Judith and Isaiah, Fudge is obligated to harmonize Revelation with his annihilationist reading of the rest of the Bible, and feels justified in doing so, because (a) there can’t be any contradictions in Scripture, and (b) so many other texts clearly refer to the annihilation of the wicked.21 The majority has spoken, and Revelation must be made to agree with it. Judith is clearly reading extraneous ideas back into Scripture, but Revelation must be made to agree with Scripture. 

Each in their own way, Peterson and Fudge both appeal to the Reformation principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture. For the Reformers, this principle was a way of avoiding the anachronistic misreadings of the medieval Catholic Church, going back to the biblical text in its own historical context, and affirming the authority of Scripture above tradition. But as Craig C. Hill of Duke University points out, this principle “all too easily becomes license for harmonizing according to one’s prejudices.”22 Peterson favors the weight of tradition, while Fudge favors what he sees as the majority of the biblical data, but both authors build their case on the same faulty premise of harmonization, and both are thereby forced to do violence to the texts that don’t fit with their presuppositions. This is not what it means to be biblical.   

Being biblical, if it means anything at all, must mean giving the biblical authors the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts, even if those thoughts are sometimes different than those of other biblical authors. If we are bound by some prior commitment to make two authors agree with one another, then we may boast of having a “high” view of Scripture—so long as “Scripture” remains a cipher for our own thoughts and only occasionally intersects with the intention of the biblical authors themselves—but we cannot say that we have been faithful to the sacred text of Scripture.23 If, however, we approach the Bible inductively, as the work of real human beings inspired by the Spirit for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, then we are free to acknowledge both the unity and the diversity, both the consistency and the inconsistency, of the biblical testimony concerning this or any other subject. Discord should not be presupposed, but neither should harmony.

Three Strands of Data 

So what happens when we, to the best of our ability, allow the biblical authors to speak for themselves on the subject of hell? Is there any harmony to be found between the various voices, or is there only discord? 

The subject of hell is a subset of eschatology, that branch of theology which concerns itself with the “last things”. Broadly speaking, eschatology is about the fulfillment of God’s purposes for human history. There are many different ways of understanding the fulfillment of God’s plan, some more credible than others, but every eschatology has at least one thing in common. In his phenomenal book, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, Craig C. Hill offers the following summary of every eschatology, biblical or otherwise: 

At heart, all eschatologies are responses if not quite answers to the problem of evil. Are injustice, suffering, and death the final realities in our world? Is human history, both individual and corporate, purposeful? Is all this talk about the goodness, love, and justice of God just pie in the sky? Eschatologies differ in how they conceptualize God’s triumph, but they are essentially alike in asserting God’s victory as the supreme reality against which all seemingly contrary realities are to be judged.24  

What is true of eschatology generally is true of hell specifically. The unified voice behind every word of judgment in Scripture is that in the end God’s love and justice will prevail. Sin will not go unchecked, the wicked will not triumph, and the righteous will not be forgotten. God’s plan for his creation will stand. But what exactly is that plan? And how does the final judgment contribute toward its fulfillment? And perhaps most importantly, how are the core monotheistic convictions concerning God’s love and justice upheld within that picture? 

While the central assertion of God’s victory is consistent throughout the Bible, the unique contexts within which the different authors reflected on these questions generated at least three different ways of envisioning the final judgment. 

The first way, which is by far the most common, is the language of annihilation: death, destruction, perishing, being consumed, vanishing like smoke, and so on (e.g., Ps. 1:4, 6; 34:16; 37:2, 9-10, 38; 58:7-8; Prov. 24:20; Isa. 1:28, 30-31; 5:24; Obed. 16; Nah. 1:10; Mal. 4:1; Matt. 10:28). If there was such a thing as a unified voice in the Bible’s portrayal of the fate of the wicked, annihilationism would have a powerful case for calling itself the most biblical view.25 As mentioned above, the author of 2 Peter gives clear expression to this view when he compares the fate of the wicked to that of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19: 

By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly … But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed … will also be destroyed in their destruction (2 Pet. 2:6, 12). 

Scholars agree that 2 Peter is based largely on Jude.26 The language of 2 Peter 2:4-17 in particular follows closely the language of Jude 6-13. But whereas Jude speaks repeatedly of God’s punishment being eternal, the author of 2 Peter consistently omits such language and replaces it instead with the language of “extinction” (2 Pet. 2:4, 6, 17; cf. Jude 6, 7, 13).27 According to Fudge, the language of this passage “is so clear and forceful that traditionalist authors are simply at a loss to comment on it at all.”28  

And yet there are several passages which seem to express something like the traditional view of eternal torment, most notably Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:41-46, and Revelation 14:9-11. Take the last of these as an example: 

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand … he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night (Rev. 14:9-11).

Within the developing narrative of Revelation, this scene is presented as the direct antithesis of the heavenly throne room vision in chapter 4, where the attendants of the sea of glass continuously offer their praise before God.29 The point of the contrast is clear: “While Rev 4:8 describes the unceasing liturgy of praise offered to God by the four heavenly cherubim, 14:11 emphasizes the unremitting torment of those who worship the beast.”30 Annihilationists are right to caution us against directly equating the imagery of John’s vision with its intended referent; indeed, I will argue for a slightly nuanced reading of this passage in chapter 6. But it seems hard to believe that anyone could read “they will have no rest, day or night” as referring to the destruction of the wicked unless the maintenance of their particular theological system required them to.        

Besides annihilationist and eternal torment texts, however, there are quite a few passages which seem to support the wider hope of ultimate reconciliation, such as Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32-36, 1 Corinthians 15:22, and Philippians 2:5-11. Some of the imagery in Revelation may also point in this direction, most notably Revelation 21:24-25, which pictures the “kings of the earth” (the same characters who were previously slaughtered by the rider on the white horse) bringing their tribute through the perpetually open gates of the holy city.31 But perhaps the clearest expression of this wider hope appears in the famous Christ Hymn of Colossians 1: 

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created … All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:15-20). 

As a devout Jew, Paul grew up hearing a particular story about God and the world, a story that stretched from the creation of all things in Genesis to the various promises of restoration in the prophets. Looking at all the evil in the world, many Jews in Paul’s day were pessimistic about the scope of the coming restoration. The tragic refrain of 4 Ezra is typical of the times: “I said before, and I say now, and will say it again: there are more who perish than those who will be saved, as a wave is greater than a drop of water” (4 Ezra 9:14; cf. 8:1-3; 10:10). This is what makes passages like Colossians 1:15-20 so remarkable. Paul is retelling the classic Jewish story, the same story the author of 4 Ezra was telling at around the same time. But unlike 4 Ezra, Paul tells the story from the new vantage point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the ultimate conclusion of this new vantage point is that the scope of the promised restoration now stretches as far as creation itself. Just as Christ is the agent through whom “all things” were created (v. 16), and in whom “all things” are sustained (v. 17), so too he is the agent through whom the same “all things” are reconciled (v. 20).32 “This is a conception of the destiny of the universe,” says C. H. Dodd, which “goes beyond anything in Jewish apocalyptic.”33

We will explore some of these passages in more depth later, but the main point at present is this: Ultimately, every attempt to find a unified voice for “what the Bible says about hell” is inevitably selective, requiring the interpreter to bend some texts into the shape of others. So it won’t work to simply point to this or that text and say “Case closed! The Bible clearly supports my view.” There are always other texts to be found, and no single view has the monopoly on biblical support. To claim such a monopoly is to purchase the appearance of harmony at the cost of exegetical integrity.

A Better Way: The In Christ Project

So what do we do? How do we decide between the various strands of data? Is there any way to move past the recognition of discord to something that might meaningfully be called “the biblical view of hell”? 

I believe there is. Given the fact that these three different types of passages do not lend themselves to an easy harmonization, the relevant question is not which type of language represents the greatest percentage of the data, or which one is the hardest to explain away, but rather which one reflects a deeper insight into God’s redemptive plan according to the overall direction of the biblical narrative.34 This approach allows us to acknowledge the areas of discord within the Bible while still making an informed judgment on which traditions represent a more “biblical” or “Christian” worldview. 

In order to illustrate how this approach works, let’s use a collection of non-sacred texts as a case study.35 I have on my bookshelf an anthology of writings from the Enlightenment.36 In this anthology there is a section on race. In that section on race there is a selection from David Hume which speaks approvingly of the fact that “there are negro slaves dispersed all over Europe”.37 This statement is then contradicted by a selection from Thomas Paine just a few pages later which rebukes the slave trade as the “height of outrage against Humanity and Justice”.38 

Now, obviously Hume and Paine both reflect the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment to one degree or another, or else they wouldn’t be included in the “canon” of this anthology; and yet obviously the two men had very different perspectives on the issues of race and slavery, and there is nothing to be gained by trying to harmonize them. Does that mean, therefore, that we shouldn’t pick one over the other, that both statements are equally in tune with the intellectual currents of their age? I don’t think so. Notice that Paine capitalizes the words “Humanity” and “Justice”. A few paragraphs earlier he claims that the slave trade is “contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity, and even good policy, by a succession of eminent men, and several late publications.”39 Throughout his article, in fact, Paine is consciously and explicitly appealing to the core ideals of the Enlightenment with its grand narrative of progress. Hume’s statement, by comparison, is remarkably free of such connections. So although the two authors can’t be harmonized, there are fairly clear grounds for saying that one of them is more in line with the overall spirit and trajectory of the Enlightenment on this score than the other. 

Now let’s apply this same approach to the Bible. While there is nothing to be gained by trying to force the different strands of tradition within the canon to agree with one another, that doesn’t mean we can’t make an informed judgment on which tradition is a more faithful representation of the overall spirit and trajectory of the biblical narrative. To quote once more from Craig C. Hill,

“Believers today are employed at the same essential task as the New Testament authors, namely, the attempt to make sense of their world in light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. I call this the ‘But in Christ’ project. Like us, the writers of the NT were located at particular moments in time and in specific cultural environments. Like us, they accepted much of their situation as given; however, at certain points they realized that their world was challenged by what they had seen of God in Christ. Those are the ‘But in Christ’ moments… I would contend that it is precisely at these junctures that the New Testament is most important and most revelatory.”40 

Again, the example of slavery illustrates the point. Like many architects of the Enlightenment, most of the biblical authors simply assumed the existence of slavery, and many passages, including several New Testament passages, offer tacit support to it (e.g., Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1). We have recently developed the habit of ignoring these texts, but for nineteenth-century slaveholders they offered clear biblical support for their livelihood. On a much deeper level than individual proof-texts, however, we can see a God who loves to set captives free, a God who breaks in pieces the doors of bronze and cuts through the bars of iron, and we can see the biblical narrative moving on a trajectory towards a kingdom in which “there is neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28).41 This is not an arbitrary move. On the contrary, it is the only hermeneutic fitting to the magnitude of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. “Is not Christ’s victory the greatest revelation in the Bible? Standing on this highest peak—that is, the finished work of the cross, causes us to see a much larger and far more beautiful panoramic view of God’s plan throughout the ages.”42 

Applying this approach to the question of hell, it becomes clear that passages like Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 have not usually been allowed the place in court which they clearly deserve. Indeed, looking at the major passages for each view, one of the immediately striking features of the “universalist” texts is that they appear at some of the highest points of the New Testament, giving the deepest and fullest expression of God’s big plan in Christ. In other words, the “universalist” passages are to the question of hell what texts like Galatians 3:28 are to the question of slavery: just as there is neither slave nor free in Christ, so every knee will bow in the name of Jesus. In both cases we see the early Christians reaching beyond the nearsighted categories of this broken world and catching a fresh glimpse of what is possible in the wake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “In the crucified Christ we see what hell is, because through him it has been overcome.”43 

This is not to say that the strengths of universalism are restricted to a few key verses at the end of the Bible. On the contrary, those key verses form the upper branches of a tree whose root system spreads throughout the entire narrative of Scripture. But once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological and eschatological high points of Scripture—those places where God’s big plan in Christ is expressed most fully. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism. 


1Edward White, Life In Christ, 3rd ed (London: Stock, 1878), 293.

2How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23.

3Michael J. Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis, Revised and Expanded Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 10.

4This is not to say that the exegetical process itself is simple or that proper exegesis equals neutral observation. On the question of whether and to what extent this kind of knowledge is possible, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 31-80, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

5 See also, e.g., Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), viii.

6For a good introduction to the many exegetical problems with biblicism, see Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014).

7Georgia Purdom gives a typical biblicist response that fails to address the central questions: “Since the Bible is inerrant Judas cannot have died by hanging and died by falling and bursting open. Rather they are two different viewpoints of the same event” (

8One notable exception is Robin A. Parry (aka Gregory MacDonald), The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd Ed (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

9Denny Burk, in his contribution to Zondervan’s new Four Views On Hell, bases his exegetical case for traditionalism almost entirely on Peterson’s work in IVP’s Two Views of Hell.

10Robert A. Peterson, Hell On Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995), vii.

11This is a quote from D. A. Carson’s article, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology,” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan: 1983), 81-82.

12Ibid., 203-4. 

13Ibid., 155.

14“Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism?” BibSac 156 (Jan-Mar 1999), 16.

15Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd Ed (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 86.

16Ibid., 90. To the nations that rise up against Israel, Judith 16:17 says that God “will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.”

17Ibid., 71, 79.

18Ibid., 4-5.

19Ibid., 131.

20Ibid., 84.

21Ibid., 69.

22Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 25.

23On the questions of biblical inspiration and authority, see, e.g., Paul J. Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999) and N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011).

24Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.

25Although, as we will see in the next two chapters, the biblical authors don’t typically use the language of death or destruction to signify a complete cessation of existence, as many annihilationists assume they do.

26Jerome H. Neyrey (2 Peter, Jude [New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993], 122) speaks of “the current consensus that 2 Peter used Jude as a literary source and redacted that document in ways suitable to his historical situation.”

27Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 252.

28Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 226.

29David E. Aune, Revelation 6-16 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 836.


31Richard Bauckham notes that the phrase “the kings of the earth” is probably taken from Psalm 2, which depicts “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” plotting to make war “against the Lord and his anointed” (The Theology of the Book of Revelation [New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 69). If that is true, it would make Rev. 21:24-25 all the more remarkable.

32See, e.g., James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 104.

33C. H. Dodd, New Testament Studies (Manchester University Press, 1953), 125.

34This has been variously called a “trajectory” hermeneutic, a “developmental” hermeneutic, and a “redemptive-movement” hermeneutic. For a thorough introduction, see William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

35One of the great virtues of this model, and the reason it recommends itself so strongly, is that it is easily applicable to the founding documents of any worldview.

36Isaac Kramnick, ed., The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York, NY: Penguin Books), 1995.

37Ibid., 629.

38Ibid., 647.

39Ibid., 646.

40Hill, 25.

41“Had this view of scripture and the gospel that it mediates been widespread among American Christians prior to the civil war … the proslavery party’s mobilization of the Bible to defend its position may well have more quickly disintegrated—which might have led to very different, less tragic and destructive subsequent historical outcomes” (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 170-71).

42Mercy Aiken, “If Hell Is Real,”

43Jürgen Moltmann, “The Logic of Hell,” in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 46.

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


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.”


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 Millennium Revisited: A Revolutionary Reading of Revelation 20 (Part 2)

lamb on throneBefore the Millennium

Having established what kind of text we’re dealing with and how it would have been received by its original audience in the last post, we are now ready to look at the larger narrative context in which the millennium of Revelation 20 appears.

Revelation 20 doesn’t stand on its own. Within the narrative of John’s vision, the millennium is preceded by the judgment of the “beast” and the “false prophet” in 19:11-21. By following John’s allusions to the Old Testament, we can see that Daniel 7 forms the apocalyptic template for both passages (Bauckham, 106-7). In order to understand 20:1-6, therefore, appropriate attention must first be paid to 19:11-21. To read chapter 20 apart from chapter 19 is to miss the context of the millennium entirely.

Most readers, of course, have identified 19:11-21 with the second coming. But this does not seem to have been John’s intention. In fact, the inability of most commentators to see anything but the physical return of Jesus in this passage is a sign of the wide cultural gap that exists between the literary norms of our world and the prophetic tradition which was John’s native language. As R. J. McKelvey has pointed out, many of the commonest features of the early parousia tradition, and the OT passages from which they came, are absent from Revelation 19—like the motifs of a cloud theophany, a great trumpet call, the gathering of the saints, and (most significantly) the restoration of creation (McKelvey, 78-9). Instead, John’s portrait draws primarily from the “Divine Warrior” passages throughout the OT, a tradition expressed most often in connection with the judgment of nations within continuing history (e.g. Psalm 2; Isa. 63; Ezek. 1; Hab. 3). John has combined that Jewish tradition with the Greco-Roman portrait of a victory procession (e.g. the white horse and red robe) in order to parody the pomp of Rome and boldly proclaim its downfall (Fee, 274).

While this scene of judgment meets the faithful as a promise of vindication, however, it meets others as an urgent call to repentance (cf., 3:2-3; 16:15). This passage forms the angelic response to the embarrassing episode of 19:10, in which John himself nearly succumbs to the lure of idolatry. As the seer, John stands as the representative of the churches which he addresses, and his stumbling thus stands as a warning for them; the vision of the rider on the white horse reveals how God will respond to those who do not repent of their idolatry. As Jesus said to the church in Pergamum, prefiguring this scene: “Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16).

The Binding of the Dragon

Following John’s narrative into 20:1-3, we must be careful not to confuse the visionary and symbolical levels with the referential level by simply picturing Satan himself bound in chains and imprisoned for a thousand years. To imagine this, and to thereby speak (as both amillennialists and premillennialists are guilty of doing) of the binding of Satan, runs the risk of a gross confusion of categories. Satan is not bound in Revelation 20; the dragon which represents Satan is bound. If we read the text historically, the binding and imprisonment of the dragon most naturally refers to the removal of the deceiving power which Satan held over the nations through the religion of Rome. The dragon is called “the deceiver of the whole world” in 12:9 and 20:3, and according to 13:14 it is through the false prophet (who looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon) that he “deceives those who dwell on the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast.” With the judgment of Rome and the end of the idolatrous Caesar cult, therefore, Satan’s primary seat of authority is removed, his hands and feet tied, so that Jesus’ testimony can shine forth unhindered.

Thus, with Daniel 7 as his backdrop, John is showing that the suffering of the saints carries greater weight in God’s court than the brutal strength of Empire, and that through their witness the case of their accuser is reversed so that he, and not they, will eventually suffer the sentence of imprisonment and death (cf. 13:10). This reading also makes for a coherent interpretation of the dragon’s release at the end of the millennium (which, incidentally, the standard amillennial reading fails to do): the point is that once again, just like in the first century, there will be a widespread, systemic intolerance to the gospel of the Messiah, as well as a virulent attack against the covenant community that bears and proclaims his name.

The Verdict of Heaven

After the judgment of the beast and the imprisonment of the dragon, John then shows us the other side of the great reversal of fortunes: the vindication of the martyrs (20:4-6). One of the primary questions modern interpreters ask at this point is whether John has all the saints in mind or only the martyrs, but McKelvey is right to point out that this question probably never entered John’s head (82). The prospective martyrs are obviously the party in view here, but within John’s visionary world there are only two parties: those who worship the beast and those who don’t and thereby suffer under his hand (13:15). The martyrs are not presented here as a sub-group of the larger community of faith, but rather as visionary representatives of the whole community portrayed in juxtaposition with the followers of the beast.

But where does this vindication take place? Isn’t it obvious that the millennial kingdom is an earthly kingdom? Not at all, actually. We note first that all of the descriptions of earthly restoration in the closing passages of John’s vision are to be found in the “new heaven and new earth” of chapters 21-22, and not in the “thousand years” of chapter 20. There is no indication of a progressive restoration of the earth or of a return to the promise land in chapter 20, just as there is no rebuilt Jerusalem and no rebuilt Temple (Hill, 237-8). Especially considering John’s many allusions to the OT—which constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision—it is remarkable that he does not allude to any of the OT passages which have long been labeled “millennial” by both premillennialists and postmillennialists in his write-up of the millennium. In fact, John consistently saves such earthly associations for the post-millennial and eternal new earth of chapters 21-22.

On top of this, we note that the heavenly courtroom scene of Daniel 7:9-14 stands behind the vindication of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6. In that famous passage, “one like a son of man” is escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. That scene largely forms the OT background behind the vision of Revelation 4-5 as well, where John sees the risen Christ enter the heavenly throne room and receive the authority to complete God’s eschatological plan. If the heavenly scene of Daniel 7 stands behind chapters 4-5, where Christ receives his kingly authority in heaven, then it stands to reason that the martyr’s vindication in 20:4-6 itself belongs in heaven. This is confirmed twice over; first, by the appearance of “thrones” in v. 4, which almost everywhere else in Revelation belong in heaven; and, second, by the parallel scenes of heavenly vindication in 7:9-17, 11:11-13, and 15:2-4.

The Proto-Resurrection

One final point, which I believe puts the nail in the coffin of an earthly interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, is the argument set forth by M. G. Kline in his article “The First Resurrection”. The crux of the argument is that throughout Revelation 20-21 the word translated “first” or “former” (protos) is consistently used to qualify things which belong to the pre-consummate order, in contrast to those things which are “new”, i.e. consummate. In Hellenistic Greek protos often had the sense of “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two (e.g., Matt. 27:64; 1 Cor. 15:45-47; Heb. 8:13; 10:9). In Revelation 21:1-5 the word “first” is employed in juxtaposition with “new”: the consummation of history brings “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when the Creator God makes “all things new” (v. 5)—and when the word “first” appears throughout the passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”. It may be good to see the words side by side to get the effect.

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the first things have passed away… Behold I make all things new.”

In light of this contextual meaning of protos, Kline argues that we should not understand the “first resurrection” as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order. It is a proto-resurrection, an anticipatory coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.

This is confirmed by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6). In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.

The point though, within the narrative of Revelation 20, is that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the beast. The focus of the passage is on their position in contrast with the position of the beast and the dragon and the wicked dead. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the beast, who ironically goes alive to the “second death”. If we do not bias the case a priori by the clumsy application of a literalist hermeneutic, then I think this reading clearly has the evidence in its favor.

The Meaning of the Millennium

Now, with all of the above in mind, we note that this passage looks back in fulfillment to the promise to the persecuted overcomers in 2:8-11. When John tells the saints in Smyrna to “be faithful until death” so that they will not be hurt by the “second death,” he is directly alluding to the later part of his vision in which the souls of the martyrs “come to life” and reign with Christ for a thousand years, thereby being exempt from the “second death” (20:4-6). In receiving this admonishment from Christ, the struggling saints in Smyrna would be uniquely comforted by the vision of the millennial reign and strengthened to stand fast in the face of persecution. The two passages belong together as promise and fulfillment, which points to at least one dimension of the numerical symbolism of the millennium.

We recall that the saints of Smyrna were told that Satan would be allowed to throw some of them into prison, in order to test them, for ten days (2:10). After the judgment of the beast, however, John sees the dragon himself thrown into the prison of the bottomless pit, not for ten days, but for the greatly multiplied number of a thousand years. Since the number ten represents totality or completion throughout Revelation (e.g., 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16), and because of the innertextual relationship between the millennium and the promise to the suffering saints in Smyrna, the “thousand years” very likely represents an intensification or heightening of the imprisonment period of 2:10 according to the law of retribution in kind, or lex talionis.

In other words, the purpose of the numerical symbolism, in its immediate application to the suffering Christians in Asia Minor, is to strengthen the conviction that their momentary light affliction is working the far exceeding glory of resurrection life, a great reversal of fortunes to be rewarded at the throne of the risen Messiah, even prior to their being clothed with new bodies at his return. The number may carry further meaning, but this is its most explicit reference.

Conclusion: Promise or Warning?

In light of all of the above, we conclude that John’s vision of the millennium presents the promise of life to the faithful and a powerful warning to those colluding with idolatry. It pulls back the curtain of history and shows the heavenly antitype to the tyrannous reign of Rome, the preliminary vindication of the suffering saints, and their participation in the priestly reign of the Messiah in anticipation of the day when he makes all things new. This view is thus markedly different from the classic expressions of the three main schools of thought. Instead of trying to create a synthesized eschatological timeline out of John’s vision, it focuses on the purpose of the vision itself in its original historical context. There can be little doubt that the suffering saints of Asia Minor would have received the vision as a promise of reward aimed directly at them, as they faced the prospect of imprisonment and possibly even of death for the sake of staying true to Christ. Whether the vision meets us now as promise or warning depends entirely on where we stand in relation to the testimony of Jesus.


Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.

Hill, Charles E. Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Kline, Meredith G. “The First Resurrection.” WTJ 37 (1974/75): 366-75. Print.

McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.

The Millennium Revisited: A Revolutionary Reading of Revelation 20 (Part 1)

poly_with_satanIntroduction: Why the Millennium Matters

We find the idea of a thousand-year reign explicitly mentioned only once in Scripture, in Revelation 20:1-6. Like the creation narrative of Genesis 1, however, the millennium of Revelation 20 has often become a convenient staging ground for larger ideological battles which in fact have little or nothing to do with the exegesis of the chapter itself. For such a small piece of biblical real estate, Revelation 20 has a remarkable history of being trampled underfoot by warring theologians seeking to extend their own empires.

The aim of this study is to try to move past some of the noise of those battles, in order to hear afresh what the vision would have meant both to the seer himself and to the seven churches which he addressed. My contention is that the preoccupation of most interpreters with the goal of finding a synthesized eschatological timeline—whether premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial—has only served to obscure the specific function which the passage holds in relation to the rest of John’s vision, which is something much more powerful and challenging than any timeline. I will argue that Revelation 20 must be read in the context of the struggling churches which comprised its original audience, and I will seek to demonstrate that for John and his first-century audience these verses promised the imminent, preliminary vindication of those who followed the Lamb unto death in resistance against the idolatrous and oppressive ideology of the Roman Empire. This chapter contains a vitally important message for the church, but it’s not the message that has preoccupied and divided Christians for centuries.

Before engaging directly with the text, however, we must first address an underlying issue of hermeneutics. The way we read any text is defined to a large extent by the assumptions we make about it. We don’t read a love song or a poem the same way that we read a biology textbook or a newspaper. So how should we read the book of Revelation? Is it mostly a literal description of history written in advance, a spiritual perspective on the battle between God and Satan throughout history, or something else?

The Anatomy of John’s Apocalypse

In one of the most important studies on the subject in recent years, Vern Poythress has argued that a proper reading of Revelation must distinguish between at least four different levels of communication: (1) the linguistic level, consisting in what John wrote and thus involving his own interpretive perspective and authorial creativity; (2) the visionary level, consisting in what John experienced when he was “in the Spirit”; (3) the referential level, consisting in the actual historical realities that the various images speak of; and (4) the symbolical level, consisting in how the visionary images speak of reality and what meaning they give to it by describing it in the ways that they do. Thus, when we read the text of Revelation 5:5-8, for instance, we must distinguish between what John wrote (the interpretive description of his vision with its many echoes of the OT), what John saw (a slaughtered yet living lamb, with seven horns and seven eyes, standing on the throne), what that refers to (the crucified and risen Jesus exalted to God’s right hand), and what significance the imagery lends to its referent (that the cross of Christ is central to the advancement of God’s eschatological purposes).

Recognizing the presence of these four distinct levels of communication throughout John’s vision is imperative for understanding its meaning. Much confusion over the symbolism of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature stems from a more basic confusion over different types of “meaning” (Caird, 37-61). When interpreters talk about the meaning of an apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely distinguish between “meaning” in terms of (1) intention, “meaning” in terms of (2) experience, “meaning” in terms of (3) referent, and “meaning” in terms of (4) significance. Of course, it’s simple enough to recognize those various levels with a text like Revelation 5:5-8, as we saw above, but it’s easy to forget when dealing with many other images throughout Revelation, not least the notorious thousand-year reign of 20:1-6.

When it comes to the millennium, futurists regularly collapse the second and fourth levels (the visionary experience and the larger meaning or significance) into the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world), and so they boldly proclaim that an image such as the binding of the dragon must speak of a literal incarceration of Satan, as if Satan was actually a dragon and John was simply witnessing history in advance (Poythress, 44-5). But if the genre of Revelation tells us anything, it is that John is less interested in giving reportorial precision on historical reality than he is in giving a heavenly perspective on its significance.

On the other hand, however, idealists are often guilty of collapsing the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world) into the fourth level (the implied meaning or significance that the experience carries), and so they often speak of the meaning of an image, like the “beast” of 13:1-8, as timeless and applicable to the church’s whole experience between Jesus ascension and his return, without any one specific referent. To this we must say, along with George Caird, that the “failure to identify the referent is bound to diminish our understanding of the sense, which is then left hanging in the air” (55).

The False Safety of Literalism

But how do we identify the referent? By what guiding principle should our interpretations be anchored? Here is where the great appeal of futurism lies, for it gives the simplest answer to this question. Influenced by the wider modernist reaction to the allegorical excesses of medieval exegesis, futurists generally default to interpreting Revelation’s imagery in a more or less literal way. This “literal if possible” hermeneutic is made explicit by Robert L. Thomas, who says that the only approach that is “fair and consistent” is to assume that the images of Revelation “have a literal meaning unless otherwise indicated in the text” (35-7).

The underlying assumption behind the literalist argument is that if we allow the language of Scripture to be interpreted non-literally we will then lose all hope of ever getting at its true historical meaning, because we can make it mean virtually whatever we want it to. This assumption is expressed, to varying degrees, even by many non-dispensational premillennialists. Thus Jack Deere, when considering various amillennial interpretations of Revelation 20:4-6, dismisses the idea of a symbolic resurrection with the assertion that “they use an allegorical technique which produces interpretations that are diverse and limited only by one’s fantasy” (Deere 66).

Granted, this fear is justified to some degree by the ahistorical way that many have interpreted the symbolism of prophecy throughout the history of the church (Grenz, 41-44). But the literalist method is in fact an extremely ironic stance to take, for it often keeps interpreters from reading biblical prophecy in the way that it asks to be read, grammatically and historically. Like American tourists looking for McDonald’s-style French fries in France, modern readers often come to the book of Revelation with an entirely wrong idea of what to expect in a piece of literature calling itself an apocalypse. Interpreting Revelation, or any literature from a culture other than our own, takes great care and is always a matter of delicate subtlety.

If we are sensitive to the text, we must admit that it contains many symbolic expressions that are never clearly explained as such. John never clearly indicates that the “lamb” is not an actual sheep, for instance, or that the “beast” is not an actual monster. But despite our modern predisposition towards literal interpretation, we all understand these expressions to represent something other than the images used to convey them. Why? Because they are obvious to us. But given the fact that these examples already force us to make exceptions to the rule of the literalist method, what basis do we have for insisting that there aren’t other instances of unexplained symbols in Revelation? In tested practice, the principle of “literal if possible” turns out to be an extremely blunt instrument which inevitably fulfills its own fears of subjectivity.

The biggest problem plaguing most popular interpretations of the book of Revelation is that they are not nearly as interested in understanding what the text would have meant in its original historical context as they are in what it can be seen to mean for our own time. While most futurist interpreters assume that the meaning of Revelation will become clearer as the end times approach, generally with the implication we are now at the beginning of that period, the text itself is addressed to seven churches in first-century Asia Minor and intends to speak openly to their contemporary situation (Kraybill, 26). Thus, the primary concern of the interpreter should be centered on the authorial intent and the public meaning which the imagery would have carried in the period in which it was given. The true interpretation is not necessarily the one which carries the most perceived value or spiritual application in the twenty-first century, but rather the one which best explains the text as it would have been understood by its original audience. It is the historical method, not the literalist method, that provides the guiding principle to which our interpretations must be anchored.

Reading Revelation Historically: Preliminary Conclusions

Two observations follow immediately from this approach. First, there is now a widespread agreement among scholars that the “beast from of the sea” refers to the Roman Empire, and that the “beast from the land” (also called the “false prophet”) refers to the religion of the Emperor which thrived throughout the cities of Asia Minor (Sheets, 197). Beyond reasonable doubt, this is how John’s original audience would have understood his imagery. The main issue at stake was whether John’s audience would continue to worship the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, or succumb instead to the mounting pressure and bow the knee to Caesar (Kraybill, 23). If they refused to participate in the Caesar cult then they would have to face the prospect of persecution, imprisonment, and perhaps even death (cf., 2:10, 13). Thus John writes in order to comfort and admonish them to stand strong in the face of this great pressure and to persevere through the coming “hour of trial” which he sees by the Spirit just over the horizon (3:10).

Second, once we recognize the contemporary situation of John’s audience, we can easily understand why the crisis envisioned throughout the book is repeatedly qualified as being “near” and “at hand”. We should not understand such statements in the weak and indefinite sense suggested by a doctrine of perpetual imminence, but in the very real historical sense that the original audience would have undoubtedly understood them. In 22:10 John is told not to seal the words of the vision which he received, because “the time is at hand”. This phrase forms an inclusio with the introduction, where John’s audience is told to keep the words of the prophecy “for the time is at hand” (1:3). On top of this, the phrase “do not seal the words” is an ironic allusion to Daniel 8 and 12, where the prophet Daniel is told to “seal up” the words of his own visions and “go your way” because they refer to a time “many days in the future”, i.e. beyond Daniel’s own generation (Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9, 13). The explicit point in Revelation 22:10 is therefore the exact opposite: unlike Daniel, John is told not to “seal up” the words of his prophecy, because they refer to a great ordeal coming upon his own generation.

All of this context is necessary for an appropriate understanding of the millennium. Now that the ground has been cleared, we are ready to discuss the text of Revelation 20 and its place within the literary narrative of John’s vision. The proof of the reading for which I will argue in the next post will be how well it adheres to the principles discussed above.


Caird, G. B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Deere, Jack S. “Premillennialism in Revelation 20:4-6.” Bsac 135 (1978) 58-73.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out the Evangelical Options. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.

McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.

Poythress, Vern S. “Genre and Hermeneutics in Revelation 20:1-6.” JETS 36 (1993): 41-54. Print.

Sheets, Dwight D. “Something Old, Something New.” Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.

Walvoord, John E. The Millennial Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.

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


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.