In the first three gospels, but not in John, Jesus makes a speech which is described as eschatological (Mark chapter 13, Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Luke chapter 21, vv5–36).
“the science of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell” (former edition of the Oxford English Dictionary)
“the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” (third edition of the OED)
or “the branch of theology concerned with the end of the world” (Collins Modern English Dictionary).
There are two aspects to this topic, the speech itself in its various versions, and the lead-up to it in the gospel accounts, which I will discuss first.
According to some passages, Jesus believed in the imminent fulfilment of his mission, whatever that was - I am leaving that an open question. Christians may assume, based upon the gospels, that it was to die on the cross for our sins. This might be true, but it would be an interpretation based on later theology. Another strong, alternative possibility is that, as Jewish Messiah, he was expecting the liberation of Israel from the rule of the Roman Empire, and the institution of God’s kingdom on earth, under his rule.
Thus we read: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1.15), and in similar vein, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16.28). Especially interesting is a passage known as The Mission of the Twelve (Matthew 10.5–40), when Jesus sends out his apostles to preach, expecting the almost immediate fulfilment of this mission. The most relevant verses are 7, “As you go, proclaim the good news. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near‘ “, and 23, “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. This suggests that Jesus was expecting his prophecies to be fulfilled not merely within his lifetime, but within a few weeks. There is also the strong implication that Jesus thought that his mission was going to be successful. The Son of Man would arrive. He speaks of this being in the third person! He will come while Jesus is still alive. So who or what exactly is this Son of Man? And what will he do when he comes?
Paul, writing approximately 20–30 years after the resurrection, identifies this heavenly saviour with Jesus himself: “It is from there (heaven) that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.20). This will be “the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8.18). He is expecting an apocalypse of some kind - some have suggested the end of the world: “in view of the impending crisis… the appointed time has grown short… the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7.26–31). He also refers to “the wrath that is coming” (1 Thessalonians 1.9–10). Paul thus believes that history was about to reach its climax and that Jesus would return within his own lifetime.
There hasn’t been one that I’ve noticed for some time but, back in the twentieth century, quite often various fundamentalist Christians, based upon their interpretation of passages in the Bible, and calculation of dates, announced that the world would end on a certain date, accompanied by statements along the lines of “Christians should prepare”, and “Jesus is about to return”. To no one else’s great surprise, these dates passed unremarkably, and the Christians who announced them faded into oblivion.
The biblical scholar Bart Ehrman provides details about one interesting example, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which he says was the best-selling work of nonfiction in the 1970s. Lindsey “believed that the Bible was absolutely inerrant”. “The world was heading for an apocalyptic crisis of catastrophic proportions, and the inerrant words of scripture could be read to show what, how, and when it would all happen”. “Lindsey pointed to Jesus’s parable of the fig tree as an indication of when we could expect the future Armageddon”, referring to Matthew 24.32–34. He “unpacks (the parable’s) message by pointing out that in the Bible the ‘fig tree’ is often used as an image of the nation of Israel. What would it mean for it to put forth its leaves? It would mean that the nation, after lying dormant for a season (the winter), would come back to life. And when did Israel come back to life? In 1948… Jesus indicates that the end will come within the very generation that this was to occur”. A generation is interpreted to mean 40 years, therefore the end of the world would happen sometime before 1988.
This is obviously an allegorical interpretation of the parable, the meaning of which is therefore bound to be debatable, and Lindsey got it hopelessly wrong on this occasion. What I find interesting in all this is the psychology of Christians who believe this rubbish, how naïve, gullible, and desperate to believe in something they are, how susceptible to delusions.
Returning now to the New Testament, we can argue that Jesus and Paul, since their predictions failed to come true, were no better than these deluded figures. Whatever gloss you put upon it, the inevitable conclusion is that Jesus and his followers were in error, if they were referring to events contemporary or close in time to them. If Jesus was the divine incarnate, therefore presumably omniscient and sure of his mission, how could he have made such a mistake, especially in Matthew? It seems far-fetched to think he was making deliberate mistakes in order to deceive his potential followers.
Given that we know that various editors have changed the texts in order to conform to the standard teaching, how is it possible that these passages remain? This would seem to be a strong indication of their authenticity, since the implications for later Christianity are so extraordinary.
Another point worthy of notice about The Mission of the Twelve in Matthew is that the storyline just afterwards becomes incoherent; if it were a Hollywood film the person responsible for continuity would be sacked. Having “finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities” (11.1). It seems reasonable to assume that they actually went off on their mission, and therefore that Jesus, as the text implies, went on alone to teach. Despite the extreme importance that Jesus placed upon this mission, however, it is never mentioned again. The disciples do not return to report on what they have achieved, and we never know whether the mission was successful or not. No mention of the disciples is made in chapter 11, so it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was indeed preaching alone. However, chapter 12 begins “At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat”. So did they go off on this extremely important journey, the fulfilment of Jesus’s mission, or not? We don’t know; it is as though it never happened.
It seems impossible to believe that Matthew’s text, as we have it, is the original; he would have been a very incompetent writer. One might assume, therefore, that some severe editing has taken place, and that whoever was responsible clearly didn’t make a very good job of it. (One would then wonder what was their motive in undertaking such a drastic redaction.)
A good reason not to think this, however, is that Luke would appear to have the same version of Matthew in front of him as he writes, and seems to be trying to correct these defects in the text. He also includes the mission of the twelve apostles (9.1–6), and later a further mission of seventy others whom Jesus had appointed (10.1–20). His accounts are toned down, however, less apocalyptic; he retains “The kingdom of heaven has come near “, but omits “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. This is wise since he knows that this prophecy did not come to pass; he refers merely to a “judgement”, and “on that day”, but does not specify when that will be. The apostles are merely instructed to spread his message and his good works: “he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”. This seems more like a celebration of the work of Jesus rather than an announcement of the imminent fulfilment of his mission.
Luke is then careful to say that “they (the twelve) departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere”, and “on their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done”, thus correcting what Matthew has omitted, but without providing any details - perhaps he doesn’t know any. There is also a report on the return of the seventy; Luke cannot be blamed for any mistakes in continuity, but we may be right to be suspicious about the authenticity of his content, given that he seems merely to be editing Matthew’s text, rather than relying upon whatever sources he has.
A further observation about the Mission of the Twelve in Matthew is that Jesus instructs the disciples “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10.5–6). This suggests that Jesus was something of a Nationalist; salvation is only for the Jews. Could this be the same person who told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25–37), as an example of how a despised foreigner could be more charitable than a Jewish priest? Could this be the same person who, following his resurrection in the same gospel, instructed his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? (28.19) This is similar to a verse in Mark, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (16.15), which scholars have agreed is a later addition, so we have reason to be suspicious of the same message in Matthew. Should we conclude that salvation for Jews alone was the original message of Jesus? Luke again tries to improve Matthew by harmonising these various elements: “It is written… that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24.47).
I’ll turn now to a consideration of the eschatological speech itself. The two dictionaries at the beginning of the article have different definitions of eschatology, although there is some overlap. In his speech Jesus predicts traumatic, cataclysmic events for the world which are undoubtedly concerned with judgment, heaven and possibly hell. The question of whether he is talking about the end of the world is not clear. There are clear denials in the gospels:
1) in the eschatological speech itself: “…for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24.22. Compare Mark 13.20)
2) and in the Sermon on the Mount: “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5.5).
Thus what might perhaps appear to be the end of the world will in fact be curtailed by God, and the earth will remain for the benefit of those whom God favours.
Despite this, the idea persists that Jesus was referring to the end of the world. Believers in this cite Mark 13.27 (The Son of Man “will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven”), and Matthew 24.31 (something similar). Soon afterwards (v40) Matthew’s Jesus says: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left”. It is hard not to interpret such a verse as meaning that the Son of Man will descend from heaven to carry off the chosen ones, thus saving them from the end of the world, or whatever is meant by the apocalypse. We can note that, if that is what the authors meant, then they contradict themselves in the verses quoted above.
Non-Christians might split their sides laughing that anybody could take such an idea seriously. The humour disappears quickly, however, when one discovers that a group of American Christians, working on the nation’s nuclear weapons programme, are unconcerned about the possibility of nuclear war, because they believe that Jesus would come down from heaven to save them (2). Readers may also be amused, or perhaps bemused, by the following story which reveals the bizarre state of mind of some American citizens who are ready to be carried off into the skies at any moment:
” ‘I was slowing down, but Georgann wouldn’t wait till I stopped,’ Everett Williams told police after the death of his wife in a freak motoring accident in Arkansas City. ‘We both saw Jesus at the side of the road, with what looked like twelve people slowly floating up into the air. She started screaming “He’s back! Jesus is back!” and we both thought that the rapture was happening. I tried to pull over, but she wouldn’t wait, because she was convinced Jesus was going to lift her up into the sky, there and then. Before I could stop, she climbed right out of the sunroof crying “Take me Lord!”, jumped off the car, and was run over by the car behind’ “. Unfortunately the ‘Jesus’ she saw was a man on his way to a fancy dress party with “twelve blow-up sex dolls filled with helium” (3).
Whether or not one believes in the end-of-the-world hypothesis, the alternative seems equally extraordinary; we are expected to believe that divine intervention will save the earth from the Apocalypse for the benefit of those favoured by God. So what exactly is Jesus talking about? According to the three Synoptic Gospels, at the time that he makes the eschatological speech in Jerusalem, he knows that he is going to die, and that at some future time known only to God terrible things will happen, which will be a catalyst for the arrival of a figure called the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven”. This figure is often identified with Jesus himself (although in these speeches he is referred to in the third person), and this has led to the doctrine known as the Parousia - the Second Coming.
The editors of the NRSV edition of the Bible are very keen to tell us what we are meant to think, and announce in each Synoptic Gospel that the speech refers to the ‘Destruction of the Temple Foretold’, namely the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. There is some evidence to back this up; all three Synoptic Gospels have Jesus say: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”. The editors seem to be assuming that Jesus’s prediction is accurate and that he must be talking about the Jewish war. There is very little else in the texts to support this suggestion, however, many passages seeming to contradict it. Some of the more significant ones are:
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (Mark 13.8). Were there many wars between nations, earthquakes and famines before the Jewish War? The historical record suggests not.
“There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now” (Mark 13.19). Was the Jewish War the worst suffering in the history of the planet? It seems unlikely.
“After that suffering the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13.24). The Roman army may have been powerful and ruthless, but I don’t think that their powers verged on the supernatural!
Luke alone adds extra material which seems to confirm the hypothesis. He talks about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, and its imminent desolation (21.20). The Jews will “fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations” (v24). The first half was certainly true, the second not obviously so. Many Jews fled into the Diaspora, but were they captives? Yet, paradoxically, Luke adds other original material which contradicts this idea, confirming the theme of worldwide apocalypse in Mark and Matthew, and taking it even further. He talks about “the roaring of the sea and the waves”. He says that “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”, not just the Jewish nation (vv 25, 26). Then later, as if to emphasize that point, he says that “it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth” (v35). It is simply impossible to believe that he is talking here about the Roman army in 70 CE.
Luke also, in his own language, makes the point about the elect being saved: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v28). That is nothing like what happened, however. Did Jesus’s followers alone survive? No. Did any Jew feel redeemed by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and the period which followed it? Certainly not.
These passages have led many Christians, including the unfortunate Georgann above, to believe that Jesus was not talking about the Jewish war at all. As the Second Coming has not yet happened, and not believing that Jesus could be wrong, they assume it is still to come, albeit 2,000 years later. Non-Christians might find this belief somewhat eccentric, but the extraordinary thing is that the world now seems to be going in that direction.
Famines are nothing new, but have been frequent recently, especially in Africa. Most people will also have noticed the increased frequency of earthquakes in the 21st century (Mark 13.7, Matthew 24.7).
We are constantly being warned about an impending ecological crisis which will threaten the very existence of the planet. Global warming means the gradual melting of the polar ice-caps, which brings the threat of terrifying rises in sea-levels. There is also talk of mega-tsunamis; it is only a “matter of time” before a volcanic island in the Canaries will erupt, causing a tidal wave which will devastate the East coast of the USA (4).
Is that what Luke means by roaring sea and waves? Seemingly to encourage such speculation, Matthew (24.37ff) has included a passage comparing the coming of the Son of Man to Noah’s Flood! (There was no known global flood at the time of the Jewish War.) Holes in the ozone layer, which expose us to dangerous levels of radiation, and destruction of the rain-forests, often called the ‘lungs of the planet’, may have devastating consequences for the Earth and our own existence. Is that what Luke means when he says that “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world?” (21.26). Talk about the sun being darkened and the moon not giving its light (Mark 13.24) sounds ominously like the scenario associated with the aftermath of nuclear war. The possibility of the whole human race being wiped out also sounds like nuclear war. If by now we are no longer quite so convinced that the synoptists were talking about the Jewish War, we might begin to wonder whether the current Middle East crisis will lead, in Luke’s words, to Jerusalem being surrounded by armies.
How do Christians deal with these problematic passages? It is very convenient for them to say that they refer to the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish War, since that would mean that Jesus had got it right. As noted above, the editors of the NRSV follow that line. Also R. P. C. Hanson, Christian bishop, says that “there are fairly strong grounds for thinking that the apocalyptic passages in Luke 21 were written with the taking of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 in mind” (5), although he does not say what these “strong grounds” are, and does not deal with any of the objections I raised above.
Scholars believe that all the gospels were written after 70 CE, in which case it would not be hard to attribute such a ‘prophecy’ to Jesus. The accompanying apocalyptic events can then be written off as flowery, exaggerated language. For example, committed Anglican N. T. Wright says: “No doubt eclipses, earthquakes, meteorites and other natural phenomena were regarded as part of the way in which strange socio-political events announced themselves” (6). This conveniently sweeps under the carpet the fact that none of these events happened at that time.
Conclusion If Jesus actually said the words attributed to him in the eschatological speeches, and was referring either to his own lifetime, or to the period of the Jewish War around 70 CE, then he was completely wrong. There is no reason to believe that any Son of Man figure came down from heaven at those times, however that is understood, to separate the elect from the rest, in order to usher in a period of world peace, in accordance with the principles of Judaism. How is this possible if he were divine? What is extraordinary is that, according to the almost unanimous scholarly opinion, the three synoptists were writing after the Jewish War, and therefore already knew that the prophesied events and redemption they are believed to have been talking about had not happened, if indeed it was the Jewish war they were talking about. Perhaps they were talking about something else?
(1) Misquoting Jesus, HarperOne, 2005, p12–13
(2) This was reported several years ago in the British newspaper The Times. I no longer have the precise details.
(3) a story from an American newspaper reported in the British satirical magazine Private Eye, issue 1036
(4) a BBC Horizon science documentary several years ago
(5) Acts in the Revised Standard Version, OUP, 1988, p29
(6) The New Testament and the People of God, Volume 1, SPCK, 1992, p285