The Olivet Discourse: Was Jesus Wrong?

Last 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].

 

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.