If historical Jesus scholars believes that Jesus’ main message was the imminent apocalypse, and that didn’t happen, how can anyone who believe that remain a Christian, given that Jesus was wrong on the main focus of his life?
This is a great question, and one I get asked a lot. Let me say at the outset that I think it is exactly right in its evaluation of who Jesus was. As I’ve explained in a lot of places, for over the past century – since Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), the majority of NT scholars in Europe and the United States have been convinced that Jesus was indeed an apocalyptic preacher, like others of his day. Apocalypticism appears to have been widespread throughout Palestinian Judaism at the time. In rough form (with lots of variations) it was held by the Pharisees (who believed in the “resurrection” at the end of the age, an apocalyptic idea; they therefore probably held to other apocalyptic notions), by the Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, by apocalyptic prophets like John the Baptist, and probably by a whole lot of the unnamed and unknown Jews who populated the land.
The basic idea of apocalyptic thinkers was that this world was controlled by forces of evil. That was hard to deny. Just look at this place: earthquakes, droughts, famines, epidemics, wars, injustice and and and (and in our world today: hurricanes, tsunamis, nuclear threats, climate change, and and and). Even though apocalypticists believed that this world was created by God, they knew that it was an awful place for most people, and they didn’t want to blame God for that. Whom to blame then? The enemies of God. God had supernatural powers who were opposed to him and his people, who had control, for the present, of this world (seen in natural disasters, violent and oppressive governments, and so on).
But God was soon to intervene in history, to overthrow the forces of evil, and bring in a good kingdom on earth where there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering – no more natural disasters, no more hatred, oppression, injustice, and war, no more wicked kingdoms. It would be a kingdom run by God. Here on earth. In the near future.
How near? Very soon. “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” The words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Jesus was not referring to a kingdom that would come to individuals when they died and went to heaven. It was a real kingdom, here on earth, with a real king. And peace, tranquility, harmony, and justice would prevail. This would come while some of the disciples were still living to see it. Or as he says elsewhere, “Truly I tell you , this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30).
And so, the questioner’s question is: since it didn’t happen, how can anyone really still be a Christian? At the very core of Jesus’ message was his claim that the kingdom was to arrive very soon indeed. It didn’t arrive. He was wrong. So … why would someone follow him?
I can’t answer for every Christian, of course. Especially since most Christians don’t realize this was the central point of his proclamation. But there are a lot of (mainly highly educated) Christians today who do know that is what Jesus preached, and yet they remain Christian. How is that possible?
Again, I can only explain from my vantage point – since for many years I myself was one of them, a liberal Christian who knew that this is what Jesus preached and knew as well that it didn’t happen. So why was I still a Christian?
For me, at the time, it was because I thought that Jesus, whatever else he was, was a full flesh-and-blood human being with all the limitations of being human (even if in some sense he was divine), and with that came some pieces of ignorance. Jesus was a man of his time (this was my reasoning as a Christian) and he couldn’t very well have not been a man of his time. A Jewish preacher in first-century Palestine was necessarily a product of first-century Palestine. What Jesus got wrong, in my (former) opinion, was the calendar.
But what he got right was the essential message.
That apocalyptic message was the message that despite the horrible state of things here on earth, despite all the misery, pain, and suffering, ultimately, God was in control. God was finally sovereign. And God would eventually set right all that was wrong. It may not be next Thursday. It may not be in my lifetime. But eventually, God would assert himself.
In this view, suffering is not the end of the story and death does not have the last word. God has the last word. Evil will eventually be overcome by good. There still is hope for this planet. There is a loving God who will intervene – either (I thought at the time) in some kind of cataclysmic act or, far more probably, in our individual lives when we die and are rewarded if we fight against the forces of evil and are punished if we cave into them and go along with them, and become rich, prosperous, and powerful as a result.
For me, even as a liberal Christian, I was powerfully struck by the old hymn, “This is My Father’s World,” especially the lines:
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
I remember singing, and thinking, these lines with real conviction and hope.
I no longer feel or think that way. But I still think it was a powerful message and one that made “sense” to me as a Christian. But no more, I’m afraid. I simply don’t think, any longer, that good will necessarily triumph. I don’t think God will have the last word. I think pain and suffering are indeed with us for the long haul, that “the poor you will always have with you,” and that death is the end of the story.
At the same time, this agnostic view of the world is not an occasion for despair. At *all*. Instead, this view that there will be no supernatural intervention to destroy the forces of evil means I have transferred my hope from some transcendent good to be brought by the ultimate Sovereign, to us, here on earth. We can indeed make meaning for ourselves in the midst of the meanlessness of the world; we can make sense of all the senselessness; we can lead happy, fulfilling, and productive lives. And part of doing so means helping those who can’t do so. We need to live our lives to the fullest, and we need to help others to do so as well. Jesus was wrong, I think, in both the calendar and in his essentially apocalyptic message. But he was right (I still think) that we should fight the forces of evil (which are not supernatural and demonic but natural and human) and work for the good.