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.