Christian Apologetics Can Be Embarrassing
I was reading a blog recently entitled Refuting 5 False Theories About Jesus. It was Christian apologetics at its finest. I couldn’t have disagreed with it more. The part that quickly caught my attention was one of the so-called false theories called “Jesus The Failed Prophet.” I’ll try and break it down for you.
The author traces the “failed prophet” theory to German scholar Albert Schweitzer, and correctly so. However, Schweitzer wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill scholar. First of all it’s important to note that Schweitzer was a Christian theologian. He was the author of The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle and his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus is considered a seminal work of biblical scholarship. Schweitzer was also a world-famous missionary in Africa and he was awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life.”
Aside: Schweitzer’s background is extremely relevant in that a reader, especially a young reader, of Refuting 5 False Theories About Jesus might otherwise think that Schweitzer was just another scholar who might easily be dismissed. Keep in mind, the blogger apparently taught theology at the high school level.
The author then accuses Schweitzer of cherry-picking the evidence. Well, the term cherry-picking, as it applies to biblical scholarship, was coined because it applies specifically to Christian apologetics. If you are defending the Bible as the unerring Word of God, you obviously can’t cherry-pick. The Bible has to be spot on, every time. However, if one is simply pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible, then cherry-picking does not apply since the only question is whether or not the Bible can be considered the unerring Word of God.
Aside: Christian apologists never seem to understand the point that it’s okay to believe in something and have faith in that belief system, but it is intellectually dishonest to say that the Bible is the infallible Word of God when it contains so many inconsistencies.
Next, the author tries to refute certain biblical passages that Schweitzer cites, passages which clearly state that Jesus was returning in the lifetime of the disciples. He focuses on Matthew 24:36 to try to prove that Jesus confessed ignorance as to the timing of his return. That’s somewhat true, although woefully incomplete. Just prior to Matthew 24:36, in Matthew 24:34, Jesus actually says that the end of the world will occur in the lifetime of the disciples. C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist himself, said of this passage, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” Actually, it’s more than embarrassing for Christianity because Schweitzer, a Christian theologian himself, felt compelled to take the skeleton out of the closet, so to speak.
So, Jesus didn’t profess complete ignorance as the author said. Rather, Jesus gave a timeline for the end of the world (“this generation”), just not the exact day and hour. Jesus goes on to say that, since the exact hour is not known, everyone should be alert for his coming (Matthew 24:42) and to be ready for his coming (Matthew 24:44). In other words, the final hour is at hand.
Then, the author makes what is, to me, an astonishing admission. He says that certain critics “mistakenly suppose that first-century Jewish apocalyptic language…must have been intended literally.” This was in reference to the aforementioned passage in Matthew 24. So, according to the author, this Bible passage is not intended to be taken literally! He admits that the Bible can’t be completely read in a literal fashion. I’m still speechless, although Christian apologist Paul Copan pretty much admitted the very same thing (see my recent post Was it Genocide? Was it God?).
To a get a more complete picture, though, let’s more fully review what the Bible reveals about Jesus’ return. Here’s some of the more pertinent Bible passages:
- “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:30)
- “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” (Luke 21:32)
- “ For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
- “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:36)
- “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”(Matthew 10:23) Note: This was spoken by Jesus to his disciples.
Comment: So Mark and Luke confirm the passage in Matthew 24:34, whereby the End of Days will occur during the lifetime of the current generation. The other passages also confirm that Jesus wlll return in the lifetime of the disciples (the current generation).
- “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
- “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
- “And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. And behold, I am coming soon.'” (Revelation 22: 6,7)
- “And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near…Behold, I am coming soon….'” (Revelation 22:10,12)
- “He (Christ) was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you.” (1 Peter 1:20)
- “The end of all things is at hand.…” (1 Peter 4:7)
- ” He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)
- “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
- “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)
- “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none… For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29,31)
- “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” (James 5:8,9)
Comment: So, it’s plainly obvious to most anyone other than a Christian apologist that these passages refer to something that will occur very soon, as opposed to two thousand years later.
- ” Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)
- Luke 9:27 and Mark 9:1 confirm the passage in Matthew 16:28, whereby some of those standing before Jesus will not taste death until they have seen the arrival of the kingdom.
- “ For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
Comment: The above passages indicate that some of the people of that generation will yet be alive when Jesus returns. In other words, the End of Days will occur during the current generation.
- “They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.'” (2 Peter 3:4)
Comment: Obviously, in early Christianity, there was a lot of questions about the fact that Jesus did not return as promised.
The apocalyptic vision of Jesus and his followers is replete throughout the New Testament – from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to Peter to Revelation to Paul. The focal point of their apocalyptic vision was that this would all occur in their lifetime, as it clearly says in the Bible itself. They were preaching the End of Days and they expected it to happen very soon. Albert Schweitzer, in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, states that Jesus was preparing his followers for the imminent end of the world. As Jesus, himself, says in Mark 1:15, “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Their message was that the faithful would be saved from the coming apocalypse. Without this promise of salvation, the message would have mostly fallen on deaf ears. People want to know that they are going to be saved – in their lifetime. Who would ever follow a messiah if they knew that he would leave and not return for at least two thousand years to finally make good on his promise. No one, of course.
In early Christianity, there was no Bible and few people, if any, ever read the scriptures (since the masses were illiterate). Further, there was disagreement even within the Christian community as to what was acceptable dogma; for example, see Luke 1:1-4 and Paul’s writings (2 Corinthians 11:4 and Galatians 1:6-9). It was the 4th century church that finally decided the fate and direction of Christianity and as a result early Christianity luminaries like Origen, one of the first Christian theologians, and church father Clement of Alexandria were declared heretics by the Church. So, interestingly enough, if Origen and Clement were alive today, Christian apologists would have to be arguing these issues with them as well. Now that would be downright embarrassing, wouldn’t it?
“Jesus of Nazareth was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of the age and who warned his Jewish compatriots to repent in view of the cosmic crisis that was soon to come. God, Jesus proclaimed, would intervene in the course of history to overthrow the forces of evil, sending from heaven a divine-like figure called the Son of Man in a cataclysmic act of judgment. This Son of Man would bring a new order to this world, a utopian kingdom to replace the evil empire that oppresses God’s people. And this was to occur within Jesus’ generation.”
– Bart Ehrman, biblical scholar and theologian