A Review of Chapter 12 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 12, written by John Loftus, is entitled “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet.”  He argues that if the Gospels are reliable historical sources then Jesus falsely predicted the end of the age within a generation of his preaching (Mt 10:23; 24:36; Mk 9:1; 13:24-31; 14:16) and that the rest of the NT writers shared Jesus’ view (Rom 13:11; 1Co 7:29; 15:20; 2Co 6:2; 1Th 4:15; 5:1-2; 2Pet 3:3-10; 1Jn 2:18, 28; Rev 1:1; 3:11; 22:6-7, 10, 12, 20).  Ben Witherington III’s book Jesus, Paul and the End of the World addresses such passages in far more depth than I can give in this review.

In addition to the texts above, Loftus believes that Jesus’ ethic was an “interim ethic” for the supposedly short period of time before the end of the age.  His reason for believing this is because Jesus’ commands are not livable over the long haul.  I probably interpret the passages differently than Loftus, but giving to the poor, trusting in God, and placing God above family are no more impossible today than in the first century.

Near the end of the chapter Loftus briefly interacts with N.T. Wright’s arguments from Jesus and the Victory of God.  Loftus provides examples where later Christians apparently took the apocalyptic language of Jesus literally as opposed to metaphorically as Wright does.  It would have been nice to hear Loftus’ explanation of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2:  “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.”  Apparently the Thessalonians thought the day of the Lord could arrive without cosmic signs.

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6 Replies to “A Review of Chapter 12 of The Christian Delusion”

  1. Have you read all the NT verses together? Their cumulative effect is quite sobering, and helps one recognize the widespread nature of such predictions throughout the NT. Here are some lists of the verses in question:

    Dr. James D. Tabor, New Testament Texts on the Imminence of the End http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/JDTABOR/apocalyptic.html

    Edward T. Babinski, The Lowdown on God’s Showdown (2001) http://secweb.infidels.org/?kiosk=articles&id=86
    ___________________________

    Also, Dale Allison and Edward Adams HAVE interacted with N.T. Wright. Perhaps Loftus did not make that clear in his chapter, but the references are there. Dale Allison contends that Wright has
    misunderstood what Weiss, Schweitzer, and possibly even Bultmann meant by eschatological and apocalyptic. He thus sees Wright’s talk of “end of the space-time universe” as setting up a false dichotomy. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Jesus and the Victory of Apocalyptic,” in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, ed. Carey C. Newman (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), pp. 126-41.

    And don’t miss Dale Allison’s other works including his big new Jesus book coming out this fall.

    Adams has composed an entire book on some of the many ways Wright is wrong about N.T. apocalyptic: http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=6312

    The apocalyptic Jesus interpretation is not vanishing. It’s here to stay no matter how many Witherington’s wish to down play it, or preterists, or dispensationlists, etc. In fact N.T. Wright also agrees with it. As does the Evangelical theologian and author of the book IN GOD’S TIME:

    http://www.ingodstime.com/

    The video for IN GOD’S TIME is sold with videos by N.T. Wright and other Evangelicals, for helping to school Methodists I believe.

  2. Hi Edward:

    Have you read all the NT verses together? Their cumulative effect is quite sobering, and helps one recognize the widespread nature of such predictions throughout the NT.

    I’ve read them together but I generally don’t like such “proof-texting” because it eliminates the wider context.

    The apocalyptic Jesus interpretation is not vanishing.

    Neither Witherington nor myself is denying that Jesus made apocalyptic statements. The disagreement is over what is meant by the statements. I would be interested in your take on 2 Thess 2:1-2 if you have the time.

    Thanks for the book recommendations. It’s a shame Adams’ book is so expensive.

  3. 2nd Thess is a 2nd century late document and some in the church (how many we just don’t know) sought to explain away this failed prophecy by claiming Jesus had returned. But then there were Christians in Corinth who did not believe in a resurrection too. The fact is that Christianity from the beginning had a wide assortment of opinions, which proves Eller’s point in his chapter. This says nothing about what came to be orthodoxy and 2 Thess emphatically denied what these minority voices were saying. Who knows exactly what they thought about this event? For all we know they were Gnostics who believed Jesus came back spiritually like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides, as I showed in my chapter the overwhelming dominant opinion was that at the eschaton there would be a cataclysmic upheaval. An exception like this cannot overcome the rule.

    And I have Ed Adam’s book. You should get it at the library. It is a systematic and thorough refutation of N.T. Wright, the likes of which there can be no effective answer. Before you pronounce my chapter ineffective read his book. Until then, you have not researched into the topic enough to say it isn’t.

  4. Edward, I’m not sure what kind of reaction you are looking for. I don’t have the time to provide a passage by passage rebuttal if that is what you are looking for. However, I intend to slowly write a commentary on the Bible and hopefully will get to all the cited passages some day. I currently have 38 chapters of Exodus to provide commentary on before starting a commentary on another book. I was thinking the next book would be an NT epistle. Feel free to suggest an NT book that you think contains the most/worst false prophecies and I will consider writing a commentary on it next. Based on your article, perhaps 1 and 2 Thessalonians or the Petrine Epistles and Jude?

    My general reaction is that I think that if Jesus made false prophecies then that is a big problem for Christianity. I have no comments on Tabor’s page as it was just citations. I don’t expect them to change your opinion, but here are some quick thoughts on your article:

    (1) You took Philippians 1:6 to imply that Paul believed some of them would still be alive at the return of Christ. Why assume that God’s work in believers will be completed when they die as opposed to when they are resurrected on the day of the Lord?

    (2) There is a now/not yet tension running through the NT (even in Jesus’ ministry). One needs to consider whether living in the last days and similar phrases necessarily mean that Jesus’ return was thought to be near or whether the phrase is acknowledging that the new age has broken in to some extent.

    (3) Not every prediction of judgment need refer to the return of Christ.

    (4) It would have been nice to have detailed interaction with other interpretations on each passage. Of course I realize that is a long task.

  5. Let’s ask instead why the believers might interpret that Jesus had already come…if they were expecting the literal end of the world(?)…More likely someone had come to the Thessalonians and told them that Caligula had already come and already fulfilled that prophecy unsettling the early believers…based on your early dating of Thessalonians, and the reports coming from Jerusalem, some might have been worried/confused. Actually it would not happen until Nero/Titus as prophesized by John (See John’s claim that believers at that time could recognize the name/known his identity based on the Hebrew.)

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