If you think of the Left Behind novels or books by John Hagee as sources that provide insight on the New Testament doctrine of end times and the second coming, you should probably stop reading now.
Hat tip to Chris Tilling and his Chrisendom blog for drawing my attention to this new book: When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia, by Christopher M. Hays, in collaboration with Brandon Gallaher, Julia S. Konstantinovsky, Richard J. Ounsworth OP, and Casey A. Strine.
Chris begins his post this way:
“So Christians must choose. Either the NT isn’t even somewhat reliable, or Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. In either case this falsifies Christianity ”. So says John Loftus in his conclusion to his essay “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet”, in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Got your attention?
Those of you who follow this blog know that I’ve interacted with Loftus’ criticisms of the faith before. He uses caricatures of biblical thinking as ammunition, and this is no different. But that isn’t really unfair play on his part. He’s attacking the faith at the level of the way most Christians (and I include pastors there) understand it — and, worse, are taught to understand it. Loftus was one of them once. He correctly identifies a problem — Jesus did say he was going to come back, and the setting for at least a handful of such statements was the first century. Loftus’s solution, though, is where the incoherence begins. His faux dilemma effectively disturbs those whose eschatology is simple-minded, and that’s a large portion of the Church.
This book appears to be a useful antidote. It was just released, so I haven’t read it, but the names associated with the contents lead me to believe this will be a book filled with careful thinking that is rooted in the biblical text across the testaments, and in consideration of the Second Temple period of which the New Testament writers were a part.
The main author, Christopher Hays, explains the goal of the volume this way:
“Jesus did prophesy his return in the first century, and that didn’t happen. And that is okay because prophecy is, by its nature, conditional, contingent upon the responses of humans. We argue that is how prophecy works in the OT, that multiple NT authors understood the eschatological consummation in the same way, and that many church fathers thought the same thing. Then we run the argument out in theological terms, showing that this fits with accounts of eschatology in Catholicism, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As a consequence, we argue that the timing of the eschaton should be thought of as tied up with Christian mission and ethics.”
Even this snippet reveals some things any real, academic, textually-informed articulation of eschatology will reveal. Prophecy is often conditional and, as the last two episodes of the Naked Bible podcast overviewed, it is certainly tied to the Christian mission. (Can anyone say “enduring tribulation” and “fullness of the Gentiles“?)
My point here is that, contrary to what popular eschatology “experts” say, there’s a lot going on in the biblical text when it comes to concepts like the tribulation, the second coming, and the “Israel of God” whose destiny is tied to all that.
First, I don’t think that it’s theologically sound to assume that prophecy is “conditional” unless the specific prophecy says so. Pretty much the whole theme of OT prophecy is God telling Israel, “You’ve sinned greviously and blasphemed my name, but I’m going to do X, Y, and Z anyway.”
If God’s promises to Israel are conditional on obedience, then the Church is in real trouble as well (Rom. 11:17-21). I seem to recall one scholar writing that God would be justified in divorcing the Church for its infidelity.
Second, it is a mistake to try to dig out a specifically “NT eschatology,” and an even bigger mistake to conflate NT eschatology with NT prophecy. There is a tendency to conflate all NT prophetic passages together in order to come to a preterist conclusion. While certainly the coming destruction of the Temple was very much on the NT authors’ minds, you can show from OT passages that are alluded to in the NT (e.g., the “curse of the law” in Deu. 27-30, Isa. 11) that they understood that the second temple’s destruction and second exile were pre-requisites to the ultimate Parousia, but not the same thing.
When the two threads are mixed up, it does open up the door to the charge that Jesus, et. al. were failed prophets.
There point wasn’t that prophecy is always conditional. It often is.
I would argue that the vast majority of prophecy is not conditional. If those promises are “often” conditional, then that eliminates the apologetic value of prophecy: “Oh, that whole book wasn’t fulfilled because Israel sinned.” If you’re going to argue that a specific prophecy is conditional because it contains a clear if-then statement, that’s fine. But if the specific prophecy in question does not have an “if,” then it is a promise, not a conditional statement.
At least we’d better hope so. You’ve stated yourself via your author avatar in The Portent that God would be perfectly justified in divorcing the Church for infidelity. If God’s promises “often” have an unspoken conditional built in, how can you rest assured that he didn’t? (See Romans 11:17-21) Suddenly, you’ve opened the door for Muslims, Mormons, et. al., to claim that indeed, this is exactly what happened.
But aside from all of that, the continued survival of the Jews as a people for the last two millennia and the resurrection of Israel as a nation should have put the issue to rest a half-century ago. From what I can see in the NT, a lot of the Jewish resistance to belief in the resurrection of Jesus was based in not liking the theological implications (particularly the inclusion of the Gentiles). How is that any different from the supersessionist’s refusal to believe in God’s resurrection of the nation of Israel for exactly the same reasons?
Shalom and regards.
Well, I didn’t write the Bible. There are a number of prophecies that are conditional, whether anyone likes it or not. I can send you a paper on OT examples if you are interested. (not mine; something a professor friend wrote).
Sure. Is it one you’ve had on your site before? I may have already read it.
It’s the one by Chisholm. Let me know.
I’ve read it, but not taken the time to formulate a full response. I’ll do so. In the meantime, happy Fathers’ Day!
Since my family was kind enough to let me relax in my own nerdy way last night and this morning, I wrote up a full response to Chisholm’s article which can be viewed at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1enphBxuydVRlKc52hAbzVlkX7TWDHjlIKDplJkSSesA/edit?usp=sharing if you are interested. Please pardon the fact that it isn’t up to academic standards and any typos or repetitions that might have slipped past me, but I think it adequately answers Chisholm and you on Biblical grounds.
The TL;DR version: I do not find Chisholm’s argument compelling. In fact, it is self-contradictory in places: He argues that the Deuteronomy 18 test of a prophet only applies to “short-range” prophecies, but nearly all of his examples of “failed” prophecies are exactly that sort of near-term prophecy which should have, in his own interpretation, falsified the prophet. Moreover, as we look at each of his examples, it quickly becomes apparent that the actual words of the prophets in each of those cases were fulfilled. You have to add your own presumptions about their “intent” to their actual words to “falsify” them. In several cases, Chisholm acknowledges these other interpretations that see these prophecies as being fulfilled, but then simply states that “it is more likely” that his view is true, without support. Only one of his examples (Ezekiel’s oracle to Egypt) really poses a problem in terms of demonstrating a fulfillment, but since he is unable to provide any explanation as to what change in “circumstance” would have prompted God to turn back from his intended judgment, he begs the question when he uses this as a proof-text.
This is what “real, academic, textually-informed articulation of eschatology” entails? Sloppy exegesis and sloppier logical fallacies?
And that’s not really meant as a dig at Chisholm. His paper strikes me as more exploratory than conclusive and he is quite correct that human response can quicken or delay a prophetic promise for good or ill–just not that it can completely annul the Word. In fact, he himself states that while he believes that circumstances may prompt God to alter his plans, “This does not mean that the prophecies are obsolete, however. They reflect his unchanging purposes for Israel and the Davidic dynasty. When God deems the time is right, these prophecies will be essentially fulfilled” (p. 11). Given that this is Chisholm’s own conclusion, it would seem to me to misuse his paper to argue that the prophetic and covenant promises given to Israel could be annulled by Israel’s disobedience.
Dr. Heiser, I love you as a brother in the Lord and have great respect for your work. I’ve been steering everyone I know towards The Unseen Realm and/or Supernatural as being foundational works in understanding the Scripture’s supernatural viewpoint. But I think that you are outside of your specialty when it comes to promoting a supersessionist viewpoint, and that it shows. And while I’m no Calvinist, I think that hanging your eschatology on the idea that God cannot “declare the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), but instead must make declarations that sometimes fail because of what human beings choose to do, is an incredibly shaky ground to stand on. Do you really think that God is stuck inside of the space-time that he created along with the rest of us?
And as I’ve said before, if unspoken conditions to promises are the norm for Israel, then the Church has no hope and no assurance either.
why not send it to him – he’d read it. His email address is on the Dallas Seminary website.
That sounds like a wonderful idea, and I will. Thank you for the encouragement to do so!
Hi Mr. Heiser, I just placed an order on the book (man it’s kinda pricy!) and I would love it you could forward me the paper you’re talking about in the above comment. The email’s: firstname.lastname@example.org
look for it in the next minute or so.
I get this. Isn’t creation groaning until the children of God are revealed? As I recently blogged, the earth understands what is going on. It’s time the church gets it? As Peter says,the way we live hastens the day of the Lord. And isn’t it true that Revelation 1:1 may intimate that the servants of God must of necessity come into being quickly and not only show them what is about to happen?
He’s referring to “this generation” passages. Here’s the intro to the book — see pp. 3-4 for some of the language:
It’s funny how prophecy literalists will NOT take this language at face value, but seek to explain it away. It’s actually quite consistent with various comments in the epistles about the nearness of the Lord’s coming (what they expected to happen).
Sure. In case you’re wondering, I don’t buy that for a second. If that’s the case, then the “fullness of the Gentiles” didn’t include anyone beyond the Mediterranean. (The Lord’s return is linked to the fullness of the Gentiles being brought into the people of God. I’d suggest that a fractional percentage of the Gentile population (first century) isn’t a “fullness”. So your full preterism abandons most of the Gentile world. But go ahead, bend the love of God and the gospel to your system. And since you’d have to argue that the fullness has occurred — can you explain how it is that Israel’s blindness has been removed (Rom 11:25) since 70 AD? No, you can’t say that means “now they can believe the gospel” since that was happening before 70 AD.
email me at email@example.com and remind me what paper this is.
video was “no longer available”
Dr. Heiser, did you ever get a chance to read this book?
Not yet. It’s about mid-queue.