One of the common objections by skeptics is that when it comes to prophecy in the Bible, Jesus gave some guidelines about his return that simply don’t match up with reality. I have been reading a book called Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism by Christopher M. Hays, Christopher B. Ansberry. In this book, they address this issue. They say:
“At the end of the day, however, the most important function of prophecy for twenty-first-century Christians is in sustaining our own future hope for the return of Jesus and the consummation of the kingdom of God. Is this hope legitimate? Indeed, even apart from the discriminating eye of historical criticism, the Scriptures do seem to give us reason for pause, insofar as they appear to evince a pattern of promising a climactic future vindication of the people of God, and then later admitting quietly that things did not work out precisely as anticipated. How should Christians feel about this phenomenon, this apparently ‘perpetual deferral of the eschaton’? If we cannot rely on Old Testament ‘prognostications’, how can we trust the predictions of the New Testament? In this final portion of our chapter, it is our desire to use historical-critical insight into the nature of prophecy and apocalyptic literature in order to reinforce Christianity’s most fundamental hope. One might conclude, therefore, that prophetic hopes of restoration are little more than pious wishful thinking.
Nonetheless, Christians often remain unaffected by this problem; practically speaking, Christ’s coming and resurrection have overshadowed the gaps in Jewish timelines. Although we look forward to his prophesied return, we tend to think ourselves fortunate to know that Jesus eschewed any particular predictions about the timing of his return (Mark 13.32//Matt. 24.36). Unfortunately, things are not quite that simple. Even though Jesus declined to offer precise calendrical prognostications regarding his return, he nonetheless made broader chronological claims that have proved problematic.” After all, he said:
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 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. (Matt. 16.27–28 [ESV], emphasis not in original).
Or similarly, consider the text which C. S. Lewis opined was ‘certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible’:
In those days, after that tribulation, 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. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven . . . Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Mark 13.24–30 [ESV], emphasis not in original) In short, Jesus promised that his Second Coming in judgement would take place by the end of his contemporaries’ lifetimes. Yet here we are 1,900 years after the last of the apostles died, reciting the creed expectantly and reassuring ourselves, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’
Even though Jesus did not make chronological predictions with the same specificity as did Jeremiah, modern Christians are in very much the same position as was the author of Daniel; they need to give an account of why the promised restoration has been deferred beyond the pale of what the prophets seemed to countenance. The potential theological problems of this situation are obvious: if prophecies of future divine vindication, be it the restoration of Israel from exile or the consummation of the kingdom of God, are habitually deferred and recalculated, without ever seeming to be fully realized, then what grounds do we have for hoping that Jesus will indeed come again? At what point do we just wise up, and stop waiting for God? Many critical scholars would point to precisely this phenomenon and say that, whatever we learn from Jesus, we should not sit around waiting for his return.”- Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism by Christopher M. Hays, Christopher B. Ansberry, Kindle Locations, 1967-1976.
The Conditional Character of Prophecy
I actually like the alternative to this supposed ‘problem’ with the return of Jesus and the prophecy topic. Hays and Ansberry say that an explanation of the deferral of the Lord’s return is a failure to recognize the conditional character of prophecy. They say:
“ In Jeremiah 18, God says that, just as a potter can change the design of his pot even after beginning to shape it, so also God can act in a manner different from what he had foretold, should people’s behavior so incline him. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jer. 18.6–10 [emphasis not in original]) Jeremiah says that when God promises blessing, and people meanwhile fail to act obediently, God can alter his course of action and punish them. Conversely, when God promises judgement and the people repent, God may decide to spare them. Thus, Jeremiah understood prophecy often to be conditional; the outcome of prophecy can depend on people’s actions. Might this help account for the deferral of the restoration of Israel foretold by Jeremiah, or for the delay of Jesus’ Second Coming? What is fascinating is that closer examination of the biblical texts reveals that precisely these dynamics are at play. We have referred already to Jer. 29.11’s famous promise: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ But note that the very next verses link these ‘plans’ to the way the Israelites react to God’s chastisement: Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer. 29.12–14) So the question becomes: how well did the Israelites respond to God?”- Kindle Location, 2061
To build on these comments by Hays and Ansberry, it is interesting that there are other passages that discuss the return of Jesus and Israel’s repentance. Jesus spoke about the relationship between Israel’s repentance and their response to him in the following text:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”-Luke 13: 34-35
A similar text is seen in Matthew 23: 37-39:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Notice the emphasis on the article “until.” Here, it could not be clearer that Jesus says the Jewish people will not see him again and cry out to Him until there is genuine belief on their part.
Another text that is important to the concept of Israel’s restoration is seen in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:19-21:
“But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”
Here, the word for restoration is “apokatastasis” which is only seen in this text. There is also a similar theme in Acts 1:6 when Jesus is asked about “restoring” the kingdom to Israel. The points is that the Messiah is in heaven and his reappearance to rule and reign can be expedited by Israel’s repentance.
Ironically, while the same themes about the condition of Israel and the coming of the Messiah (for the first time) are seen in the Rabbinical literature.
I was recently going back and reading a book called Jewish Christian Debates: God, Kingdom, Messiah which features a dialogue between Bruch Chilton and Jacob Neusner. In it, Neusner says:
What is most interesting in the Talmud of the land of Israel’s picture is that the hope for the Messiah’s coming is further joined to the moral condition of each individual Israelite. Hence, messianic fulfillment was made to depend on the repentance of Israel. The coming of the Messiah depended not on historical action but on moral regeneration.-pg 172.
So to build on this, there are plenty of texts in the Rabbinical Literature that discuss the relationship between the actions of Israel and the Messiah’s first appearance:
Leila Leah Bronner says the following in Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife
“All “the ends” have passed and still the Messiah has not come; it depends only upon repentance and good deeds. (BT Sanhedrin 97b). If [the whole of] Israel [genuinely] repented a single day, the son of David would come immediately. If [the whole of] Israel observed a single Sabbath properly, the son of David would come immediately. (JT Ta’anit 64a). If Israel were to keep two [consecutive] Sabbaths according to the law, they would be redeemed forthwith. (BT Shabbat 118b). Because they describe a uniformity of devotion and behavior that is difficult if not impossible to attain, these passages show the lengths to which Jews as a community must go to attract the Messiah, as does this statement from Rabbi Yohanan: “The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked.” In response to the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik (1922–2001), a modern Orthodox scholar, claimed that redemption could come in two different forms. The first, the ketz nigleh or “revealed end,” is a paradigm of history and natural process. The second, the ketz nistar, or “hidden end,” is miraculous and supernatural. If the Jews did not repent (repentance in this case meaning a return to Orthodox observance), then redemption would take place on a natural level, but slowly. Conversely, if the Jews did repent, the Messiah would come miraculously, as suggested by the image of the Messiah riding in on the clouds in Daniel 7:13.”-Kindle Locations, 3433-3445
I am well aware there have been several ways to deal with this topic. Christopher Hays even has a new book out called When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia. The bottom line is that there are many cases where we see the conditional element of prophecy in the Bible. Given both Jesus and Peter and the Rabbinical literature discusses the contingent element of prophecy and the appearance of the Messiah, this provides a plausible alternative.