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.”

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.