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Explaining Jesus’ Apocalyptic Assumptions

One other aspect of Jesus’ teaching is important to emphasize before continuing on to consider his understanding of the afterlife.  That is the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his views.

I have discussed Jewish apocalypticism a number of times on the blog—including some months ago on the current thread.  I don’t want to repeat all that here in the same form, but I do want to summarize what the view is and discuss its underlying assumptions.

In a small nutshell, apocalypticists believed that this world was being controlled by evil forces responsible for this terrible mess of things (corrupt governments; natural disasters; persecution of the righteous), but that God, who was ultimately sovereign, was soon to intervene in the course of human affairs, overthrow the forces of evil, and establish a utopian kingdom here on earth.

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How Old Was Jesus at His Baptism, Start of His Ministry & Death?
The Preaching of Jesus in a Nutshell



  1. Avatar
    nbraith1975  October 11, 2017

    So in this soon to come ‘Kingdom of God’ did Jesus’ followers believe there was going to be free will? Seems like a big chance for Yahweh to take with his prized creation since the Bible indicates the ‘free will’ track record for humanity is 0 for 2.

    First, Adam and Eve chose evil and then after the flood, humanity chose evil again.

    What are the chances a ‘free will’ humanity will stay on the righteous path in the coming Kingdom of God?

    If Yahweh is depending on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to keep his children on the straight and narrow in his new kingdom he may want to reconsider since it’s not working to well at this point.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2017

      Of course, ancient people didn’t talk about “free will” as a human personality trait or a philosophical position.

    • Avatar
      Robby  October 11, 2017

      If there was a fall from a perfect heaven once by the angels, whose to say that after a few hundred thousand years of bordem…I mean bliss, a rebellion doesn’t happen again since we will still retain free will.

  2. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 11, 2017

    I should think the church fathers didn’t take long to start thinking through the implications of the restorationist view of apocalypticism. One obvious problem is that, when we die, our bodies become “food for worms.” If our bodies are to be literally resurrected, what becomes of the poor worms? Are there any discussions in the early church literature (or Jewish commentaries on Jewish apocalypticism) of how all humans can be raised without destroying all the life that has fed on our corpses?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2017

      Yes, indeed, starting in the second century. And what about cannibals? Whose raised body will contain the parts of which bodies?

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  October 12, 2017

        Everlasting life gets tedjous, don’t it!

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  October 11, 2017

    So there was a lot of apocalyptic buzz in the air during the time of Jesus? If so, what, if anything, is unique in Jesus’ apocalyptic thought? Also, was apocalyptic thought more prevalent in different strata of 1st century CE Jewish society?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2017

      I’m not sure there was anything *completely* different in Jesus’ thought — a lot of it replicated what others said. One difference is that htese others were not thought to have been raised from the dead.

  4. tompicard
    tompicard  October 11, 2017

    >would be brought back into their bodies; these bodies would
    > be made perfect and immortal.
    so you equate ‘perfect’ with ‘[physically] immortal’?

    I think you will need to justify that, either logically or at the least show that to be a proposition held by Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2017

      You can see Paul’s discussion of it in 1 Corinthians 15, e.g.

  5. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 11, 2017

    I’ve always been told that Jews never interpreted the Adam and Eve story as “original sin”. Is that correct? What and who is the earliest writing where the story seems to be interpreted as an original sin story. Do we have any writings that seem to interpret it differently and if so, how early?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2017

      That’s right. The idea of “original sin” as it developed was first expressed by the 5th c. Augustine.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  October 12, 2017

        I believe it was Augustine who formulated the Church concept of “limbo”, a state between Heaven and Hell to which the souls of unbaptized infants spent eternity….A not unpleasant state, they had done nothing sinful, but still not being in the presence of the Beatific Vision. I think it was only in the last few years that the Church quietly abandoned this tenet. I shudder to think of the numbers of devout parents of deceased babies who tortured themselves over the dispositions of their childrens’ souls over the course of centuries.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  October 13, 2017

        But isn’t that implied though, by the idea of the Fall, from which mankind has yet to rise up? Or is that a Christian reinterpretation of the original narrative? Is there an essential difference between the Christian view of sin and redemption vs. that held by Jews of 1st century Palestine? I’ve never read anything that satisfactorily answers this question, but maybe I haven’t delved into the right literature yet – or asked the right scholar….so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2017

          No, it’s not implied actually — it just seems to be when we are accustomed to read them that way. Throughout history Jews have never done so, and before Augustine Christians did not either.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 11, 2017

    So, I am seeing better now what you mean when you say that Jesus did not believe in heaven: In the first three Gospels, Jesus is described as talking about a kingdom coming to earth and the fourth Gospel is probably not that historical.

  7. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 11, 2017

    Which Jewish apocalyptic sources talk about falling angels causing the horrible things in the world?

  8. tompicard
    tompicard  October 14, 2017

    Do you have any comment on Is 65 17-20?

    i.e. in the new heaven and new earth the typical lifetime will be 100 years?
    no hint at immortality

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      It says that dying at 100 will be considered “young.” And yes, absolutely, 3 Isaiah does not imagine “immortality” for those in the new heavens and earth.

  9. tompicard
    tompicard  October 14, 2017

    additionally Is 65 17-20

    in new heaven and earth, there will still be births (contrary to speculation above regarding sex/reproduction); however no children will die in first few days of their lives.

  10. Avatar
    aaron512  October 15, 2017

    Hello. I appreciate your work.

    I read somewhere here that you were a Dispensationalist when you were a Christian fundamentalist.

    Does this mean you subscribed to the “360-day year” as a means of reckoning time, with regards to Daniel 9?

    Now that you no longer believe, do you find anything mysterious about the Daniel 9 “prophecy” of Jesus, or is it just cherry-picking/selective translation? Which translation (of Daniel 9) is the most reliable, in your view?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Great question: I actually can’t remember about how I deal with the days in the year with respect to Daniel 9! Generally I trust the NRSV translation of the Hebrew Bible.

      • Avatar
        aaron512  October 17, 2017

        I have looked at very old English translations of Daniel 9 (from before the 15th century CE) and this Messianic style of translation seems to have been present back then.

        I have been wondering when the endeavor to make Daniel 9 Messianic began, even though most scholars agree that Daniel 9 (and many other chapters in Daniel) refer to Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ persecution of the Jews in the 2nd century BCE.

        Perhaps Messianic interpretations (particulary of the term “an anointed prince” in Daniel 9) began with Christians within a couple of centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, even if all the “math” and “prophetic years” hadn’t been quite worked out by then.

        This would likely be consistent with other Messianic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, put forward by early Christians (such of Isaiah 53 – completely taken out of context by Messianic interpreters).

  11. Avatar
    Klas  October 22, 2017

    The apocalyptic Jesus concerns me a lot as I spent every Thursday evening in my childhood learning about Armageddon that would come in 1975 because that was what my mother and her nice Jehovas witnesses friends said. And I believed them until 1972 when at the age of 19, I left everything that had to do with religion.
    But now 45 years after, I find it thrilling to discuss the apocalypse as a historical phenomenon and here the question of dissimilarity comes in.

    What intrigues me is that, if the gospels were written and afterwards copied when Jesus and his disciples were dead…. Why did they not omit the promise that Jesus would come back during the lifetime of “this generation”? After all, everyone who read this would know that this promise failed.
    For me, it is an indication that the oral traditions about what Jesus had said were so strong that the copiers did not dare to omit or alter it, not until the authors of John (after alla they speak of themselves as a group in the text) did it by presenting a more vague promise.

    PS. You can imagine what importance the word “generation” has for 1 millions us citizens who are JW, they believed that the generation that experienced the year 1914 would not die out before the Apocalypse and now when they have in fact died out, the JW leadership has come up with the theory of overlapping generations meaning that those now living who have known people who experienced 1914 will not die before the real apocalypse comes.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2017

      Luke does modify these statements a bit; John gets rid of them; the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus preach against them.

      And yes, the history of setting and changing dates goes all teh way back. But its modern manifestations are the most interesitng in some ways. (Cf. the Millerites in the 19th c.)

  12. Telling
    Telling  October 29, 2017

    I ran across an interesting quote in the Jesus Seminar “The Five Gospels”, in Luke 17:20-21. The Pharisees are asking Jesus when the Kingdom will come. His response is “… God’s [Kingdom] is right there in your presences”. The Jesus Seminar ranks the phrase as probably said by Jesus. The NIV version reads “… [the Kingdom] is in your midst”.

    The passage is similar to Gospel of Thomas phrases that indicate Jesus teaches the “Kingdom” as being right here in our midst (but people don’t see it).

    The “Five Gospels” additionally attribute none of the apocalyptic biblical passages as being from Jesus. Examples are Luke 26-27, “People will faint from terror … And they will see the son of Adam coming on clouds with great power ….”, also Mark 13:8 “For nation will rise up against nation, and empire against empire; there will be earthquakes everywhere, there will be famines. These things mark the beginning of the final agonies”, and Mark 13:24-26, and Mark 13:30-31.

    I don’t see how a doomsday scenario can mix with the present-moment awareness teaching as in the above Luke passage. If the Kingdom is right in front of us (but we don’t see it) then there can be no future coming Kingdom except as we perceive and focus our awareness. Can the two apparently exclusive and opposing ideas be reconciled?

    Did the Pharisees subscribe to the same “end times” scenario with restoration of the Garden of Eden and resurrection of the dead and transformation to immortal bodies? Were they looking to see if Jesus subscribed to same ideas or were they merely testing him to trip him up?
    Thanks for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2017

      Yes, I don’t think there’s any *way* those verses go back to Jesus. They accord perfectly well with Luke’s own theology and are not independently attested. As to the Pharisees: we simplyi don’t have detailed information about their views at the time.

      • Telling
        Telling  October 31, 2017

        To be clear, you’re saying Luke 17:20-21 “… [the Kingdom] is in your midst,” doesn’t go back to Jesus?

        And the apocalyptic sayings Mark 13:8 “People will faint from terror … And they will see the son of Adam coming on clouds with great power ….”, and Luke 26-27, Mark 13:8, 13:24-26,13:30-31. — These too don’t go back to Jesus? Or do I misunderstand you? Do you attribute any (or all or some) of the apocalyptic sayings to Jesus?


        • Bart
          Bart  November 1, 2017

          THat’s right — Luke 17:20-21, in my view, is not something Jesus said. But the apocalyptic discourses in the Gsopels, in my view, do go back to him.

          • Telling
            Telling  November 4, 2017


            No spiritual Master will make public predictions of the world ending, much less be wrong about it, nor would he get into trouble with the authorities and be executed, or would he be turning over the tables of moneychangers doing important and legitimate temple business in a marketplace area, which historians generally say is what led to his arrest and execution. These are the qualities of a deluded man who believes he’s far more important a figure than he really is.

            I don’t believe Jesus was the deluded nut, although I can understand why some would think so
            The apocalyptic mission, as has been noted, appears cyclically in history. It is easy to understand and has elements of truth underlying it (we will all die and experience a very personal end-times). It’s also a useful tool for motivating people to join a church and find salvation. My mentioned 17:20-21 phrase which is similar to several Gospel of Thomas phrases, is the kind of message a Master would teach.

            I respect that you’ve come to different conclusions as to what Jesus taught, and I respect that you’ve used trusted historical methods for arriving there. Let me suggest a possibility that the doomsday message shows up in many sources precisely because it is so popular in history, having a familiar and inviting theme, whereas the present moment awareness message of Luke shows up in few sources because the “orthodox” fathers didn’t understand it and probably rightly knew that the general population wouldn’t understand it either, and regardless, the message doesn’t lend good support or need for organizing a big monolithic church.

            I’m wondering if you could comment on my suggestion that trusted historic research methods may not be working in this particular case because of a built-in bias against a spiritual message not easily understood, and a similar bias in favor of a proven Perry Mason cookie cutter style idea.

            Thanks Bart. It is really good that you come down to the level of us minions and talk directly with us. Not many recognized people will do that outside of perhaps an occasional one-time appearance on a blog. I’m sure more than a few of your subscribers feel the same.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 5, 2017

            I”m not sure why you say that spritiual masters never make specific doomsday predictions. Haven’t they done that time after time after time throughout history?

          • Telling
            Telling  November 5, 2017

            I think you’ve, yourself, proven that no spiritual Master has ever made a doomsday predication (except if you put the term “Master” in quotes), because no doomsday has yet come. Even a lowly “prophet” has to be right 100% of the time or he loses the title.

            A Master is a person having elevated spiritual wisdom-knowledge. This knowledge takes us into areas of the mind. We create our own reality via our thoughts, imaginations, and our actions in the present moment. A “Master” teaching of doomsday is feeding negative thoughts into his poor pupil’s mind. It’s a dastardly thing to do. No genuine Master will do this. He will instead teach of finding freedom from physical entrapment and of peace and harmony by way of right thoughts and right actions. The storylines we live out are products of our own minds, individually and collectively. This is what a Master teaches.

            But a Master might use doomsday ideas for communicating the elevated message to his pupils, it being of their language, something they can understand, and perhaps Jesus might have done this and his words later distorted.

            It is also possible that there could be a “doomsday”, but it would be something of mass hallucination, experienced in full-blown three-dimensional reality out of the minds of people signed on to and believing the same thing.

            I suggest running fast away from anyone telling of any impending doomsday.

  13. Avatar
    Michele  November 13, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,
    in The Rise And Fall Of The Afterlife, Jan Bremmer writes:
    “Jesus had concentrated on the new aion which he seems to have reserved for his generation but not for future resurrected ones, destined instead to see the Son of Man returning upon the clouds to judge mankind.”

    What’s the difference between his generation and the future resurrected ones, if everyone is resurrected?

    “Jesus professed a faith in the resurrection but not, presumably, in the restoration of the old body, since the resurrected would be ‘like angels’ (Matthew – 22.23-33; Mark 12.18-27; Luke 20.2740).”

    I know you think that Jesus believed in a bodily resurrection because he was apocaliptyc, and for me you’ve right, but why Bremmer concludes by writing “This belief then seems to conform to those currents in contemporary Judaism which rejected bodily resurrection” ?
    I ask you that because you’ve cited this book in a former post about resurrection and Zoroastrianism, so I wondered what’s the difference of thinking between you and Bremmer.
    Thank you very much!

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2018

      I think he’s saying that Jesus focused on the people living at his time that he was talking to. I disagree with Bremer about “rejected bodily resurrection.” Jesus clearly believed in resurrectoin.

      • Avatar
        Michele  November 14, 2018

        Maybe I’ve understood, thinking that the eschatology would be accomplished within his generation, thing that you have already pointed out several times, Bremmer says that Jesus, talking about resurrection, referred to his contemporaries and to those who had already died ” ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob ‘ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”, not thinking about future generations, which would not have existed since everything would have been accomplished “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”. It’s right?
        Thank you Dr. Ehrman!

        Michele Fornelli

  14. Lev
    Lev  April 8, 2019

    Hi Bart. Would you be able to recommend a book that summarises Jewish apocolyptism up to and including the 2nd temple period?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2019

      An authoritative account is John Collins The Apocalyptic Imagination. Or the collection of essays in the volume he edited, vol. 1 of The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism

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