The Same Old Song

Ascension2

How was it for you? The End of the World, I mean. The one last Saturday – 23rd September?

What do you mean it never happened? Christian numerologist David Meade promised it would. He worked it all out from the bible and stuff, and had numbers – numbers I tell you – to prove it.

When it didn’t happen, what did Meade do next? He explained that Saturday was only the beginning of the End. Terrible stuff was going to start happening on 23rd, that would lead up to the actual end End, which is not far off.

Same old, same old. How many times has this happened before? A predicted end-of-everything that doesn’t come to pass, followed by post-hoc ‘explanations’ from those who invented the nonsense? Invariably this entails some version of ‘it was really only the beginning of the end’, even though this is not what the ‘prophecy’ claimed before it failed. It’s easy to scoff, which is what Christians themselves do when one of their number fails spectacularly to predict the End. ‘They should know,’ they say, ‘that the Lord warned that no-one knows the precise time of the End.’ (And indeed he does in Mark 13:32.)

What they fail to see is that Christianity itself is built on a failed prediction that the End was nigh, and the resulting catalogue of excuses when it turned out not to be. Jesus (or those who put words into his mouth) was clear that the End of the World was scheduled while his pals and fans were still alive. When it didn’t happen, those who came after him invented all sorts of reasons why not: ‘he meant it would be a gradual process (Luke 17:20-21),’ ‘God doesn’t see time the way we do’ (2 Peter 3.8), ‘he’s delaying so more people can be saved (2 Peter 3.9). The writer of John’s gospel, written about 70 years after Jesus lived, solves the problem by ignoring the issue entirely.

Christians today leap on these excuses to explain why the world still hasn’t ended; yet there is an unassailable incongruity between this kind of fudging and what Jesus says. He thought and taught that the world was coming to a spectacular end soon, when God would remodel it in favour of the poor, the oppressed and the righteous (Matthew 16. 27-28 & 24.27, 30-34; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34 etc). He was wrong. Paul too thought God was going to rescue his ‘remnant’ while he still lived (1 Corinthians 15.51) and he was wrong too.

When it dawned on early Christians that the world was not going to end when Jesus and Paul had said it would, they started inventing their excuses. 2 Peter 3.3 warns that there would be scoffers in the last days, an undoubted jibe at those in the early second century who pointed out how mistaken Christians and their Christ were about the End. Those scoffers had a point and, two thousand years down the line, have even more of one.

Jesus is the archetypal failed prophet of End Times. Cranks like David Meade are merely modern day equivalents, purveyors of the exact same fatuous nonsense about the end of the world. Meanwhile, nothing changes; we are still here, the world is still here and God, as is the way with a non-existent being, remains characteristically unconcerned.

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Making Excuses for Jesus

jesus-jw

Excuse 5. When Jesus said the ‘Kingdom of God is coming soon’, what he meant to add was ‘but only in heaven and then in 1874. Or 1878. 1914? Er… 1975. After 2017?’

So say the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1897 they claimed that Jesus had started on his comeback tour in 1874:

Our Lord, the appointed King, is now present since October 1874, A.D., according to the testimony of the prophets, to those who have ears to hear it: and the formal inauguration of his kingly office dates from Apr 1878, A.D. Studies in Scriptures Series IV (p.621)

and

The year A.D. 1878 … clearly marks the time for the actual assuming of power as King of kings, by our present, spiritual, invisible Lord… The Time is At Hand (1911 ed) p.239

When there was no sign this had happened – and goodness knows what sort of sign there could possibly be – the JWs changed their minds again and said the real date for the start of the ‘full’ kingdom was to be 1914:

In view of this strong Bible evidence concerning the Times of the Gentiles, we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished near the end of A.D.1914. Studies in the Scriptures Series 2: The Time is at Hand (1889 ed) p.99

and

October, 1914, will witness the full end of Babylon, “as a great millstone cast into the sea,” utterly destroyed as a system. Watch Tower (Jun 15 1911) p.190

Alas, over a century later there’s no sign of the Kingdom’s ‘full establishment’, while the old, corrupt system (Babylon) carries on as normal. So, after another change of heart, and a quick, futile stab at 1975 as the right date, Jehovah’s Witnesses came up with a revised plan. Here’s how it looks:

Jesus will return while the generation alive in 1914 is still around, when he will finally get the Kingdom underway. This is the ‘generation’ to which he refers in his prophecies in the bible; his return and the Kingdom coming to the earth will definitely happen while the 1914 generation  is still alive.

But hang on! A person born in 1914 – and there are some still around – is now 103, while those who were already adults in 1914 are long dead. In other words, the 1914 generation has almost gone and there’s still no sign of Jesus or his Kingdom. Either he’s going to return real soon, before the last of the 1914 generation depart, or he’s going to miss the deadline yet again (Guess which it’s going to be).

But worry not, Jehovah’s Witnesses have this one covered too! When Jesus referred to ‘this generation’ he didn’t just mean one generation, but to the generation that ‘overlaps’ with that generation. There’s nothing biblical about ‘overlapping generations’, of course. Jesus didn’t say, ‘the Kingdom will come while this generation and those that overlap with it are still alive,’ but like mainstream Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses need to give Jesus and themselves an excuse if they’re to avoid admitting that he and they have got it wrong.

So, an overlapping generation would be one like my own, whose grandparents were children in 1914. But we can extend this – and we can be sure JWs will once Jesus fails to return on time – because, using the same ‘reasoning’, my grandchildren’s generation ‘overlaps’ with my grandparents’ through me. My grandchildren’s grandchildren too will be connected with all previous generations, including that from 1914, because of those who have preceded them… and on and on, ad infinitum. In fact, Jesus could come back at any time in the future so long as someone is alive who can trace their ancestry back to 1914.

But he’s not going to. He wasn’t talking about a ‘generation’ almost 2000 years after he lived. He was certain the Kingdom of God was coming to his time and his people. All of these convoluted and ultimately unconvincing explanations of what he ‘really’ meant when he preached an imminent heavenly Kingdom on earth simply won’t do. While mainstream Christians mock Jehovah’s Witnesses for their silly conjecturing about Jesus’ return, they share the belief Jesus is coming back. Most won’t venture a date (though there have been plenty who have) because, they will tell you, Jesus also said ‘no-one knows the precise day or hour’ when the Son of Man and the Kingdom will appear (Mark 13.32). Nevertheless, they remain certain that Jesus will return: this year, next year, sometime… any time other than that which he actually predicted.

While evangelical Christians and others insist that the bible, where all Jesus’ failed prophecies appear, is the literal and infallible word of God, they refuse to take literally his pronouncements about the coming of the Kingdom. While he might have said he didn’t know exactly when it would arrive, he was certain it would be while his own generation lived. As he is made to say in Matthew 16.28, ‘some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’.

All of which is a problem for Christians: if these predictions are not to be ignored, then they must be interpreted, explained and, eventually, explained away. The last thing believers want to do is accept them for what they are; the demonstration of Jesus’ failure. The Kingdom didn’t arrive when he said it would and, given how far it is past its sell-by date, it’s certainly won’t be now.

Making Excuses for Jesus

Excuse 2. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘the church’.

Kingdom

So if not the transfiguration, then what? Christians can’t accept that Jesus was wrong in all he prophesied, and must invent some other explanation. How about the church – the body of believers who saw, and still see, Jesus as their saviour? The church must be the Kingdom! Yes, that’s it surely.

But then they’re left to explain why the church, even in its early days, bore no resemblance to what Jesus said the Kingdom would look like. Where was the Son of Man descending through the clouds? The hosts of angels in full view of ‘the tribes of the Earth’? The disciples judging and ruling the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19.28)? The last becoming first and the first last? The meek inheriting the Earth? The righteous being rewarded for their good deeds, while the unrighteous are sent to outer darkness?

Even if we were to overlook the absence of these characteristics, all of which Jesus predicted would define the Kingdom, then isn’t the-church-as-Kingdom just a tiny bit, well… disappointing? It doesn’t embody either any of the conditions of the Kingdom that the Old Testament prophets promised it would (Micah 4.1-7 & Isaiah 11.6): nations continue to wage war, the lamb and the wolf don’t co-exist peacefully and God singularly fails to rule the earth from Mount Zion.

Instead, the church is all too human, riven with conflict and division. Despite the whitewash given to it by the author of Acts, Paul’s letters – 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans and Galatians in particular – serve as a permanent reminder of the dispute and strife that have characterised it since its earliest days. It has also a shameful history of persecuting those with whom it disagrees and produces its fair share of criminals and abusers. Today, it is split into 45,000 different factions and, according to some of its own, is awash with ‘false doctrine’.

One thing it is good at – the very thing Paul insists it shouldn’t be (1 Corinthians 5.12) – is judging the rest of us.

The Kingdom of God it is not.

Making excuses for Jesus


Excuse 1. When he said ‘Kingdom of God’, what Jesus really meant was ‘transfiguration’.

Hokum

However it might seem, Jesus’ mission didn’t fail! Absolutely not. Because after he promised those standing in front of him would see God’s Kingdom come in power and glory, the gospels relate how some of the disciples saw Jesus having a friendly chat with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9.1-8 etc). So, say his apologists, this was what he was really referring to; his being visited by two of Judaism’s great figures, on day release from Heaven or having travelled through time or, more probably, having being planted in a story that is pure fabrication. Whichever, this ‘transfiguration’ is regularly hauled out as ‘evidence’ that those standing with Jesus did indeed see him in his Kingdom. (Here, here and here, for example.)

Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh, for example, puts it like this:

Jesus then promised His disciples that some of them would see the “kingdom of God” before they died: “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (Luke 9.27). While there are numerous explanations as to what Jesus’ words here mean, the simplest explanation, especially in the context, is that Jesus was foretelling the transfiguration which was to come within a week’s time.

But this cannot be ‘the simplest explanation’ because it doesn’t fit any of what Jesus said the Kingdom would be like. Here’s his description as it appears in Matthew 24.29-31 & 34 (emphasis added):

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other… Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

The transfiguration bears no relation to any of this, nor to his other predictions about what the Kingdom would be like – the meek inheriting the Earth, the last becoming first and so on – once it was established. The Kingdom of God as Jesus imagined it (and he did imagine it) was to be a far grander affair than a symbolic encounter ‘witnessed’ by a few disciples. It was to be seen by the entire world and would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. The transfiguration, no matter how much Jesus’ raiment is made to shine, simply doesn’t qualify. It can’t possibly be, then, what Jesus had in mind when he predicted the end of the age and God’s rule coming to the Earth. There is a fundamental dishonesty in claiming that it is.

Better luck next, Christians…

Whatever happened to the Kingdom of God?

Cross4

Jesus clearly and unequivocally announced that the Kingdom of God would soon be coming to the earth (Matthew 16.27-28; Matthew 24.27, 30-31,34; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34 etc).

This was his Good News. According to the synoptic gospels his entire ministry was about announcing the arrival of this Kingdom and demonstrating it was just around the corner (Mark 1.15; Luke 11.20 etc). All of his teaching was predicated on his belief that God was soon to intervene in human affairs to right all wrongs, repair injustices and punish the wicked (Matt 5.3-12; 25.31-46). He had no message other than this.

Yet many – most? – Christians refuse to acknowledge any of this. For Christians, Jesus was about something else entirely. Many of them argue that even though he might have appeared to say that God’s Kingdom was imminent, this wasn’t what he really meant.

When he promised it would happen ‘within this generation’ (Matt 24.34), they say, what he really meant was the generation alive after certain calamities had taken place (Matt 24.15-31), evidently more than 2000 years into the future. As I’ve suggested before, this makes him one heartless bastard, standing, as he did, in front of the meek, the hungry and the downtrodden and promising them all would soon be well, when he was ‘really’ referring to people who wouldn’t be born for another two millennia.

But then he’s more specific about who he intends the promises for, when says in Matthew 16:28, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” ‘Some who are standing here’ – the people who were physically present, there in front of him, being addressed by him. It’s difficult to maintain that he meant people in the far future when he specifies those who are ‘standing here.’ Yet Christians maintain just this.

“Aah, yes,” they say, “but he was clear no-one knew the hour of the Kingdom’s return – not even himself.” Yes, he did say this – in Mark 13.32 – but there’s no conflict between this claim and his insistence the Kingdom would arrive soon. We all do this sort of thing when we say, ‘my parcel is due to be delivered some time today but I don’t know when exactly.’ This is what Jesus is claiming: ‘the Kingdom will be here very soon, though I don’t know precisely when.’ Too right he didn’t.

Nonetheless he thought he had a pretty good idea. In Matthew 10.23 he sends the disciples off to announce its arrival to the cities of Israel and tells them the Kingdom will have arrived before they return. When they get back (in the next verse!) the Kingdom is still conspicuously absent, so he and the gospel writers conveniently forget all about his rash promise. Where’s a good editor when you need one?

And then it all goes wrong for him. Jesus is arrested for his seditious idea that the existing system is about to be overturned and replaced (Matt 19.28), and he’s sentenced to death. Did he continue to hold out hope that God would act before the execution could be carried out? Did he expect his Heavenly Father to carry out a last minute rescue by bringing in the Kingdom with a great show of power? It seems likely, but as he hangs on the cross he realises, finally, that God is not going to act. God has let him down, as he always must, and deserted and despondent Jesus cries out in dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34). How could he have got it so wrong?

‘No, no, It can’t end like this,’ cry the Christians in return (and indeed it didn’t). But how to explain (away) the great failure of Jesus’ mission heralding the arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth?

Don’t worry, our Christian friends are up to the task.

Next time…

 

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to with any mystical salvation plan (part two)

Disciples2

Last time, I provided evidence that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical salvation plan constructed around his supposed resurrection. My six references demonstrated that, even after his death, the disciples adhered to Jesus’ original message: God’s Kingdom was coming soon and they were going to rule over it. Here are six more reasons we can be sure this was the case:

7. Our earliest sources, Q and the gospel of Mark, do not give much credence to the resurrection as an actual event: Q records no sayings of the risen Jesus and Mark has no resurrection appearances; it ends with the women who discover the empty tomb deciding not to tell the disciples about it. In Mark’s gospel, then, the disciples are not even aware the tomb is empty, let alone that Jesus has returned from the dead. We can conclude from this that the community that produced Mark’s gospel, the supposed resurrection was not significant in and of itself.

8. Paul tells us that the disciple’s gospel was not the same as his, despite the fact he too believed the Kingdom wasn’t far off (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The disciples, he says in 2 Corinthians 11.4-5 and Galatians 1.6; 2.11-21, were preaching ‘a different gospel’. Different from his, certainly, but the same as the ‘good news’ Jesus proclaimed: Jewish people should prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mathew 9.35; 15.24), when, as Jesus himself had promised them, the disciples would judge the restored tribes of Israel and rule over them. It is, as we have seen, out of the question that they would jettison this aspect of the ‘good news’, given to them by Jesus himself.

9. Because the disciples – and Jesus’ brother James – saw the new Kingdom as intended for Jews only, as Jesus had before them (Matthew 10.23), they insisted that any Gentile converts must be circumcised; must become Jewish (Galatians 2.7). Paul, of course, objected to this requirement and throws tantrums about it in his letters (Galatians 5.1-12; Philippians 3.3). But like Jesus, the disciples saw no place for Gentiles, the unrighteous, in the new age; those who didn’t convert would, of necessity, be dispatched to eternal punishment (Matthew 25.31-46).

10. As far as the disciples were concerned, therefore, it was entirely for their own good that converted Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 6.12-13) as this was their only guarantee of a place in the new Kingdom. What this tells us is that a salvation formula, such as that dreamt up by Paul, had no part in the disciples’ ‘good news’.

11. Wherever they appear – in Paul’s writing, the gospels, Acts – the disciples are portrayed as being at odds with an incantational, faith-based Christianity. The Bible attests, even with Paul’s new religion superimposed, that they held to a different gospel, a different sense of what Jesus’ life meant and a different notion of their place in the coming Kingdom. And wouldn’t they be the ones to know? They knew Jesus, spent time with him, listened to his teaching, bought into his misguided mission and had sufficient understanding of it to spread his ‘good news’ to fellow Jews, both while he was still alive and afterwards (Matthew 10.23; Luke 9.1-2).

12. The New Testament is testimony to the failure of everything Jesus and the disciples stood for; their ‘news’ that God was soon to turn the Earth over to the meek and that they would then rule the only people who mattered, the twelve tribes of Israel, with everyone else thrown into outer darkness (Luke 13:28). Jesus himself, of course, would return at some point to be top dog, God’s representative on Earth – his anointed one. None of this happened.

If only it had been allowed to rest there, we might not know today of Jesus and his mad ideas. Instead, Paul stepped in, reinterpreted the whole ridiculous enterprise and bequeathed the world a set of different but equally absurd beliefs. And the rest is history: religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, suppression, superstition, clerical child abuse, Pat Roberston. Is this the Kingdom that Jesus and his closest associates foresaw? Decidedly not. But it is their legacy.

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical Salvation Plan ™

 

Pentecost

As I disussed last time, there are indications throughout the New Testament that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan. There are clues too that the disciples clung to this original message – they’d heard it from Jesus himself, after all – even as other interpretations began to supersede it.

Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  1. Jesus tells his chosen twelve, which includes Judas, that they will rule with him in the age to come (Matt 19.28). As Bart Ehrman points out1, the fact that Jesus evidently had no foreknowledge of Judas’ later betrayal means this promise undoubtedly goes back to Jesus – it is unlikely later believers would have made it up. Though their names vary between gospels, Jesus hand-picked twelve men to rule with him.

  2. He appoints twelve disciples quite specifically and later tells them privately that this is so they can judge and each rule one of the twelve tribes of Israel once God’s Kingdom arrives (Luke 22.30).

  3. When Judas kills himself, the remaining eleven disciples think it vital to appoint a replacement twelfth (Matthias, in Acts 1.21-26). The number remains significant to them. How would they be able to rule the twelve tribes of Israel if there were only eleven of them? There had to be twelve for this very purpose. Even after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, the disciples are still preparing for the end of the age he prophesied and for their positions of power in God’s Kingdom.

  4. By the time the synoptic gospels were written, Jesus secret teaching that the Twelve would rule alongside him in the new kingdom had become common knowledge (hence its inclusion in the gospels). Given that he told them in private they’d be judges and rulers, it can only have been the disciples who later broadcast this information. And why would they do this? Because it was an integral part of their good news. Furthermore, all three synoptic gospels include a range of episodes in which the twelve are castigated for their presumption (eg: Mark 10.37-41; Matthew 20.22-24; Luke 22.24-30). These have all the hallmarks of stories created later, when a different ‘good news’ was emerging, specifically to mock the disciples’ belief.

  5. In much the same way, the disciples are consistently depicted as having no real understanding of Jesus’ mission (Mark 9.30-32; 10.35-45). And they don’t, in that they have no understanding of the later reinterpretation of Jesus’ significance. How could they? By the time the gospels came to be written, the mystical-Christ version of Christianity had started to take hold. Paul’s salvation plan and the supposed resurrection were beginning to assume greater importance than Jesus’ original message. How could the disciples, 40 years earlier, have known that this was going to happen? How could Jesus? They have to be portrayed as being largely ignorant of later developments – developments which, in any case, they opposed when they did encounter them (Acts 9.26; Galatians 1.6; 2.11-14; 3.1-3).

  6. In fact, Jesus teaching – all of it – was predicated on his belief that the Kingdom of God was ‘at hand’, imminent, about to happen real soon (Mark 1.15; 9.1; 13.30; Matthew 10.23; 16.28; 24.34), and that when it did, he and his chums would be there ruling it. It is unthinkable his inner circle would abandon this teaching, even after he died, in favour of something else. Any visions they had of him returned from the dead would only have reinforced their commitment to his ‘good news’; resurrection, after all, was a sure sign of the Kingdom’s arrival (Daniel 12.2-3).

To be continued…

1 Ehrman, Bart D., The Lost Gospel of Judas, p146