Failed Eschatology

I just read an interesting post over at dangerous idea about thinking of Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet. This is basically the view that Albert Schweitzer (who I wrote about in an earlier post) supported in his book, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, which I’ve been meaning to read. Basically, the idea is that Jesus predicted the end of the world would come very soon- within his disciples lifetimes- and most of the early writings of his disciples (such as Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians) contain this immanent eschatology. Because later writings (such as the Gospels and other letters) modify the idea of an immanent return, we are actually seeing the early church community in its first and second generations reshaping their eschatology in order to reconcile it with the fact that nothing big had happened.

A research paper I wrote as a freshman concerned the nature of the phrase Son of Man, which is Jesus’ primary way of describing himself. After reading buttloads of articles in theological journals regarding the phrase, my basic conclusion was that no one really knew what he meant when he used that phrase to describe himself, but that most concluded it was primarily a reference to Daniel 7:13. In other words, the main point of using this phrase was to portray himself as a herald of the impending apocalypse.

Some excerpts from a poster named exapologist:

“-Many (most?) of Jesus’ ‘Son of Man’ passages are most naturally interpreted as allusions to the Son of Man figure in Daniel. This figure was an end of the world arbiter of God’s justice, and Jesus kept preaching that he was on his way (‘From now on, you will see the Son of Man coming with the clouds…’). Jesus seems to identify himself with this apocalyptic figure in Daniel, but I’m not confident whether this identification is a later redaction. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for orthodox Christianity.

-Many passages attributed to Jesus have him predicting the end within his generation (‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent therefore, and believe the good news’; ‘this generation shall not pass away…’; ‘you won’t finish going through the cities of Israel before…’; ‘some of those standing here will not taste death until…’; ‘From now on, you shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds’)

-Jesus and Paul taught a radical “interim ethic”. This makes sense if they believed that the eschaton would occur within their generation.

-Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.

-The fact that virtually all the NT authors believed the end would occur in their generation makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims

-Sanders’ argument from the criteria of authenticity: the passages that attribute these predictions to Jesus pass the criteria of multiple attestation (and forms), embarrassment, earliest strata (Mark, Q, M, L, Paul’s earliest letters, the ancient “Maranatha” creed/hymn) etc.”

I think one of the most fascinating aspects of viewing Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet is the insight it brings to his ethics. The ethical principles presented in Jesus’ teachings, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, have been considered nearly unlivable by many Christians and other thinkers alike. The command to be perfect, to always work on behalf of others, and to live such a radical ethic of service are so demanding that they make more sense if an immanent end of the world is foreseen. That doesn’t mean that his ethic isn’t something to be admired, or even to be pursued. It simply means that falling short isn’t something to despair about. Instead, simply push on and try again.

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One Response to Failed Eschatology

  1. JH says:

    I came to a very similar conclusion about Jesus’ teachings as a result of writing several papers and a doing a good bit of extracurricular reading during my second and third years at HU. I beat my head against the wall about it over on KB.net whenever they have a big thread about Christian use of wealth, or non-violence, but no one ever pays any mind…as people seem to have done here as well. That’s a shame though, because I really think it’s the key to understanding Jesus’ ethic.

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