Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 7
This eighth chapter is Thom’s second longest and it’s titled Jesus Was Wrong: Or, It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine. Although I disagree in the strongest possible terms with the idea that Jesus was wrong, I found myself in agreement with the direction Thom took in the beginning of the chapter. In fact, this chapter is remarkably different from the seven that have preceded it. Thom himself explains the difference in its concluding section:
“The astute reader will notice that the case I’ve made in this chapter has not been against biblical inerrancy. In fact, the case I’ve made has depended on the assumption of the reliability of the synoptic gospels.”
(Gulp!) Why would Thom be willing to assume that the Scriptures are reliable in this case? Oh, I see: if it leads to a conclusion that Jesus was wrong. Now I get it: if a straightforward reading of the Scriptures leads to the conclusion that Jesus was wrong, Thom wants to skip all the textual criticism and take the text at face value!
Any reader – astute or otherwise – would be forgiven for noticing that in this book Thom intends to show the Scriptures unreliable…except where assuming otherwise would allow him to show that God was unreliable. This book is truly deserves a warning label for being hazardous to your faith!
Even so, I enjoyed reading this chapter and I wish Thom would have made a separate book of it. Why? So that the evangelical world would be further confronted with the very straightforward case that Jesus indeed predicted the coming of His kingdom in the lifetime of His disciples. The entire institutional church declares that the Bible is the word of God and yet tacitly agrees with Thom that Jesus was wrong about the timing. At least Thom is being consistent by saying that the Bible is an entirely human set of documents (“To err is human”), while the institutional church takes upon itself the right to set aside some of the word of God. Chalk one up for the errantists against the inerrantists on this one.
Having concluded that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, I could never conclude that He was wrong about anything. I could easily be made to see that I had misunderstood Jesus about something, but never that He misunderstood something. In His humanity I could see Him being ignorant of some things – in fact, we all know that He said He was. But that’s very different from saying He was wrong about something – especially about something He taught so emphatically and described as most important. But if Thom and I agree about what Jesus said concerning the timing of His Second Coming, how then do we get to such radically different conclusions about whether He was right? Let’s break it down.
Thom’s argument is essentially this:
Premise 1: Jesus prophesied that the kingdom of God would come in that generation.
Premise 2: The kingdom of God did not come in that generation.
Conclusion: Jesus was wrong.
I agree completely with Thom on the first premise. I disagree with him on the second premise, and therefore on the conclusion. My argument therefore is as follows:
Premise 1: Jesus prophesied that the kingdom of God would come in that generation.
Premise 2: The kingdom of God came in that generation.
Conclusion: Jesus was right.
As to the second premise you can find a one-page summary of my view at Jesus Christ Has Already Come Again. And I present a full biblical case for this point of view at Whatever Became of Jesus Christ? (it’s the length of a small book).
Here’s an overview of the argument: The timing of the Second Coming was the late 1st Century AD, and the nature of it was spiritual. As for the timing, Thom has made an excellent argument for the timing. And I accept it. Once again, his intellect and writing dexterity weave well , and, in this case, serve an excellent purpose. In fact, I don’t think my chapter on the timing of the Second Coming is as good as his. He is absolutely correct that all the various events Jesus prophesied (e.g. earthquakes, false messiahs, worldwide gospel preaching) can be checked off as completed in the 1st Century. I also agree with the way he dispenses with the standard evangelical or conservative alternatives to the straightforward timeline we see that Jesus gives. He also rightly rejects the “escape clause” of Jesus “not knowing the day or hour.” I also am quite comfortable with the way he handles the “solution” put forth by N. T. Wright. He likes it for the same reasons I do, and rejects it for the same reasons I do. Why am I finding myself in such agreement with Thom on this issue of the timing of the coming of the kingdom of God? Simple. Remember, on this subject he said he was depending on the reliability of the Scriptures. Therefore, we are both working from the same assumption on this point. (Thom and I would probably agree on many other points if he would only keep to this assumption when he studies those other points.)
I should add that Thom also rightly points out that the testimony of the early church as evidenced by the balance of the New Testament was entirely consistent with Jesus’ view about timing. Thom does waffle a bit on John and 2 Peter, but, hey, let’s not be picky with him.
As to the nature of the Second Coming being spiritual, it is undeniable that the general thrust of the New Testament was to recast the Old Testament in a spiritual light. Moreover, the work of the apostles, which can be seen from Acts to Revelation, was to get the disciples to think in spiritual rather than in fleshly terms. In many circles today, to say someone has “spiritualized” a passage is to criticize him. It’s clear, however, that the same dynamic was true in New Testament times. (“How can a man be born when he is old?” asked Nicodemus. And, in another context, “How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you about bread, but about the leaven of the Pharisees?” asked Jesus.) People clung tightly to their fleshly (i.e. physical) orientation. Note how Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1ff indicated that there was to be a progression in understanding among disciples of Jesus from fleshly to spiritual. Paul was pushing for that progression throughout his ministry, the evidence for this being seen in his letters. Nor is the appeal for spiritual, as opposed to physical, perception limited to Paul. The rest of the New Testament shows it also.
The mere fact that today’s church considers a spiritual Second Coming as out of the question is testimony to its fleshly and spiritually immature mindset. Spiritual things are more important than physical things, and more long lasting. When will the church that says the Bible is the word of God take seriously admonitions like 2 Corinthians 4:18 (“for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal”)?
The coming of the kingdom of God in the late 1st Century AD, in full accordance with the timetable Jesus laid down, was a heavenly event with earthly consequences. The powers being despoiled were celestial, not terrestrial as they had been in Israel’s past. In times past the Old Testament described how the earth was shaken, but the coming of the kingdom of God was the shaking of heaven, and it had enormous consequences on earth. Perhaps the most notable of these consequences was the passage of humanity from the darkness of polytheism to the light of monotheism. You could say that this change is the most profound distinction between the age of BC and the age of AD. The change was as progressive as the turning of night to day, but there was that instant when “the sun of righteousness” broke the horizon.
There is much more that I could say, and that I have said in the resources to which I gave you in the links above. Unlike Thom’s book, you don’t have to pay for any of it. I hope you will read them.
In the meantime, recognize the irony that this chapter of his book has brought to light: Thom Stark is saying that the Scriptures can be trusted to present the truth about what Jesus and the New Testament church said concerning the timing of His Second Coming. On this point, I could not agree with him more. I only pray that Thom can eventually bring himself to trust Jesus on the reliability of the rest of the Bible!
Next installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 9