Brief Intermission Reality Check: Did ancient apocalyptic figures even SET precise time points, and was ‘concern over delay’ really about ‘failed prophecies’ or about something else?

[draft: Feb 5/2013; Main series]


Four points:


One. Apocalyptic prophets did not make precise predictions to begin with...

In the concluding chapter of his work on apocalypticism, Frederick Murphy discusses various criticisms of apocalypticism. One of these criticisms is about precision about the timeline, and he refers to the important work of JJ Collins:


"A third possible criticism of apocalypticism is its interest in predicting the future, particularly when such prediction assumes the form of identification of concrete dates and times. This leads to disillusionment when prophecies fail to materialize. It can contribute to skepticism about religion by both insiders and outsiders. Collins shows that there is surprisingly little attempt at such specific prediction in the ancient sources. The timing of future events, particularly eschatological happenings, is usually left rather vague. An exception is Daniel, which at the end has several successive times when the end is supposed to come. Despite the inaccuracies of its predictions, Daniel has been one of the most popular apocalypses of all time, being included in the Hebrew Bible and used by both Jews and Christians (Collins and Yarbro Collins 2005c). The modern obsession with dating the end carries apocalyptic thinking further than the ancient sources support. On the other hand, the innumerable failures of apocalyptic prophecies to materialize have never led to the disappearance of apocalyptic thought. If anything, they have caused thinkers to redouble their efforts to advocate an apocalyptic viewpoint. There are other indications of date-searching in ancient apocalypticism as well. The Damascus Rule among the Dead Sea Scrolls gives a rough date for the end, but it is rather vague. The sectarians used interpretation of Scripture, the pesher on Habakkuk, to show that a delay of the consummation had been foreseen by prophecy. The book of Revelation gives no absolute date for the end, but it repeatedly says that it will be “soon.” When it did not happen, it did not in the least dampen the enthusiasm of many Christians for this book. Jesus and Paul expected an imminent end, but later Christians incorporated it into a broader conception of the divine plan. Again, none of these examples approaches the enthusiasm for and the supposed precision of specific dates that has been so evident throughout Christian history and that so often catches public attention today." [Murphy, Frederick J. (2012-08-01). Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction (Kindle Locations 8461-8475). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition. ]


The implication of this for our study should be obvious--and clarifying: If 'real' apocalyptic figures did not give precise date-markers, why would we think Jesus did? If the Hebrew prophets did not give precise date-markers for most of their 'eschatological-ish' prophecies, why would we think Jesus would?


And if Jesus did 'break with the mold' and give a precise set of date markers (the blogger's position), then why has the rest of Christian history shown 'indications of date searching'--like those before/around the time of our Lord?


This would mean that the attempts of interpreters to 'read into' Jesus' apocalyptic pronouncements any level of precision greater than the models of the past (eg Qumran, Hebrew bible, other Mediterranean apocalyptic groups) would be speculative--and this seems to be what the blogger (and the sources he/she is dependent on-- Schweitzer, Allison, et. al.) is engaged in.


We cannot really have this both ways--we cannot really affirm that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet because 'He looked and acted and spoke like one' and at the same time affirm that His allegedly precise dating statements did NOT 'look like' those 'reference' prophets. There is a disconnect here.


His message WAS discontinuous with the past, but only in the centrality of His position within the Eschaton (as Savior and Judge) and in the encroachment/inauguration of that Eschaton in His own acts (crucifixion, resurrection, ascension).


But His language is 'too traditional' to indicate a discontinuity in date-precision. His images are mostly biblical images and His 'woes' and warnings are echoes of prophetic denunciations in the Hebrew bible. He doesn't even get to the same level of quasi-precision of Daniel (many theological assumptions being made here for the sake of argument, of course).


So, the foundational premise of this whole argument (ie, that Jesus made a precise enough prediction to be able to judge whether it failed or not) requires proof of itself--given that it is without a reference or significant precedent in the history of apocalyptic texts/figures before Him. Without this proof or demonstration of the 'precision' of His statements, the position cannot be taken as a serious objection yet.



Two. Without a precise end-point, the word 'delay' is inappropriate.

In his theological discussion of the return of Christ, Berkouwer draws attention to the 'imprecision' (smile) of the term 'delay':


"Delay in the Old and New Testaments. A word of caution is in order here. To speak of a “delay” presupposes the background of a completely fixed period of time. Delay then consists in crossing the boundaries of this fixed period of time. Consistent eschatology, maintains that the original New Testament expectation proceeded from such a concept of a fixed period of time, deriving this original expectation from Jesus’ preaching. But it must be kept in mind that the concept of delay can also result from an incorrect interpretation of God’s dealings in history.


"Already in the Old Testament we encounter the idea that the fulfilment of God’s promises had been delayed, if not altogether cancelled. When Israel, faced with ominous threats and utter despair, begged for the fulfilment of God’s promises and fulfilment did not come, even when the eleventh hour appeared, it was faced with some seemingly serious inconsistencies. Against the superior might of its enemies, it became uncertain and tended to doubt that God had remembered His people. “I say to God my rock: ‘Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ ” (Ps. 42:9). A crisis in the expectation threatened, though trust and hope in God finally surmounted the doubt (vs. 11). Learning that God would not manifest Himself, Israel was driven to ask: “We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long. How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile thy name forever? Why dost thou hold back thy hand, why dost thou keep thy right hand in thy bosom?” (Ps. 74:9–11). The “how long?” presupposes the continuity of a period of time that is no longer comprehended by the people and suggests a delay in the saving work of Yahweh (cf. Ps. 89:46, 49). There appears to be a waiting and watching but no fulfilment: “ ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ The watchman says: ‘Morning comes and also the night’ ” (Isa. 21:11f.). For Israel, the plea “how long?” implied that God had forgotten it and did not hear its cry (Hab. 1:2).


"The grave doubts that arose under these circumstances were dispelled by the words of the promise. There is indeed a call to watchfulness, but this is not without its rewards. “For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). Here we encounter again the correlation we mentioned earlier between delay and expectation. This delay may not be interpreted as nonfulfillment, but must be seen as subject to the renewed admonition to expectation.


"During the time of Ezekiel the problem of “delay” reached critical dimensions: “Son of man, what is this proverb that you have about in the land of Israel, saying, ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nought’? Tell them therefore, ‘Thus says the LORD God: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, The days are at hand, and the fulfilment of every vision” (Ezek. 12:22f.). Israel’s use of this forbidden proverb illustrated its disbelief in prophecy. It was easy for the prophets to speak, promise, and admonish on the basis of their divine mandate, but there had to be truth and credibility in it. And, the critics hastened to add, this was the element their promises lacked. Day followed upon day, but things did not improve. This led first to a “philosophy of delay” and later to doubts that the promises would come true at all. What is remarkable about the Lord’s response to this attitude is that the expectation is not put off to a remote and distant future, but is rather redefined: “The days are at hand, and the fulfilment of every vision.” There must be no more mention of delay (vs. 25). When the critics complain that the fulfilment is somewhere in the distant future, the Lord replies that “none of my words will be delayed any longer” (vs. 28).

Undoubtedly there was a delay or “sojourn” in God’s dealings with Israel, a time in which the fulfilment of His promises had not yet appeared. But in spite of the critics, who saw in this delay an indefinite postponement or cancellation of the promise, Yahweh has sworn that His words will not fall to the ground. The promise of today may be the reality of tomorrow, and the continuity of time does not serve to disqualify the reliability of the Lord or of His words. The Lord promised that in the days of the rebellious house of Israel He would speak the word and perform the deed (vs. 25)." [Berkouwer, G. C. (1972). The Return of Christ. Studies in Dogmatics (76–78). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.]


Berkouwer has the obvious advantage of perspective here, since he--like many of us--have experienced a 'delay' between our expectations of God's immediate intervention in our personal lives and the reality of His timing (and mode) of that intervention. Most believers who have walked with the Lord for any time at all have experienced this, wondered over it, agonized over it, and (sometimes) became angry or bitter over it. God promises to deliver 'a way out' in cases of challenges to our faith, character, and growth (I Cor 10.13), but we sometimes experience what we consider a 'delay' in its appearance!


This is not rocket science, but if Point One (above) is taken seriously, then the 'delay' issue is no different that the 'gap' issue-- the 'gap' between when we ask for help and when we receive the help is the time of questioning, soul-searching, 'how long O Lord?', and 'did I misunderstand this?' turbulence.


And, consequently, we should expect the early church to have voiced such emotions and questionings during its time of 'gaps' (eg persecution, inroads by false teaching, dilution of the church via cultural influence). Of course, this is what the historians note--that apocalyptic 'expressions' come to the fore in times of duress and difficulty.




Three. If—in Jewish apocalyptic thought-- expressions of discouragement at the 'delay' were NOT about 'failed predictions', then they were about something else: theodicy and/or the problem of evil.

The two most representative Jewish apocalyptic writings after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD focus on the ‘absence of divine justice’—an aspect of the problem of evil:


“Fourth Ezra and its literary twin 2 Baruch (ascribed to the scribe BARUCH, Jeremiah’s closest collaborator) are the two most representative apocalyptic responses to the fall of the Second Temple, written at the end of the 1st cent. C.E. In both writings, the seers complain about the desolation of ZION and the apparent absence of divine justice.” [NIDB, s.v. "Eschatology in Early Judaism", Pierluigi Piovanelli]]



Richard Bauckham discusses the topic of the delay of the Parousia in a number of places in his excellent writings, but one of the more illuminating (to me) discussions is in his Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture of 1979 [Tyndale Bulletine Volume 31. 1980]


In this lecture he explores the theology of Jewish apocalypticism and  how it dealt with the issue of eschatological delay.


 “The problem of eschatological delay was familiar to Jewish apocalyptic from its earliest beginnings. It could even be said to be one of the most important ingredients in the mixture of influences and circumstances which produced the apocalyptic movement. In the face of the delay in the fulfilment of the eschatological promises of the prophets, the apocalyptic visionaries were those who believed most fervently that the promises remained valid and relevant. Despite appearances, God had not forgotten his people. His eschatological salvation, so long awaited, was coming, and now at last it was very close at hand. In almost all the apocalypses there is no mistaking both a consciousness, to some degree, of the problem of delay, in that the prophecies had so long remained unfulfilled, and also the conviction of their imminent fulfilment. It goes only a little beyond the evidence to say that in every generation between the mid-second century BC and the mid-second century AD Jewish apocalyptists encouraged their readers to hope for the eschatological redemption in the very near future. At the same time there is very little evidence to suggest that during that long period the continued disappointment of that expectation discredited the apocalyptic hope or even diminished the sense of imminence in later generations. The apocalypses of the past were preserved and treasured; and passages whose imminent expectation had clearly not been fulfilled were nevertheless copied and by no means always updated. Each apocalyptist knew that his predecessors had held the time of the End to be at hand, but this knowledge seems to have encouraged rather than discouraged his own sense of eschatological imminence. Clearly the problem of delay was an inescapable problem at the heart of apocalyptic eschatology, but the tension it undoubtedly produced was not a destructive tension. It was a tension which the apocalyptic faith somehow embraced within itself. The problem was felt but it did not lead to doubt.


“The question we need to ask, then, is: how did Jewish apocalyptic manage to cope with the problem of delay? The key to this question - and the theme of much of this lecture - is that alongside the theological factors which promoted the imminent expectation there were also theological factors accounting for the fact of delay. These two contrary sets of factors were held in tension in apocalyptic. They were not harmonized to produce a kind of compromise: expectation of the End in the fairly near future but not just yet. The factors promoting imminence and the factors accounting for delay (or even, as we shall see, promoting an expectation of delay) are held in paradoxical tension, with the result that the imminent expectation can be maintained in all its urgency in spite of the continuing delay.


“Essentially this is why the problem of delay did not discredit or destroy the apocalyptic hope. From the beginning apocalyptic faith incorporated the problem of delay. It was a real problem creating a real tension: there is genuine anguish in the apocalyptists’ prayers ‘Do not delay!’ (Dn. 9:19; 2 Baruch 21:25) and ‘How long?’ (Dn. 12:6; 2 Baruch 21:19). But the tension was held within a structure of religious response which was adequate to contain it.”


Bauckham points out, though, that this tension was somehow ‘loosely grounded’ on the theological foundation of the sovereignty of God, but rightly asks the question about the legitimacy of such view:


“I have admitted that the basic apocalyptic response to the problem of delay - the appeal to the sovereignty of God - provided little in the way of explanation. Later we shall see how some apocalyptists, especially in the later period, filled out this explanation with some attempts at more positive understanding of the meaning of the delay. For much of the period when apocalyptic flourished, however, it would seem that the problem of delay was contained mainly by the appeal to the sovereignty of God to balance the urgency of the imminent expectation. It is necessary to ask whether this was theologically legitimate. In other words, it may be that the fact of delay ought to have discredited the apocalyptic hopes, if only it had been squarely faced in the cool light of reason. What I have called the structure of religious response by which apocalyptic contained the problem may have been no better than a psychological means of maintaining false expectations. History could supply many examples of unfulfilled prophecies which managed to maintain their credibility long after they deserved to do so, often because believers who have staked their lives on such expectations are not easily disillusioned. Is there any reason to put the apocalyptists in a different category?


In other words, were the ancient apocalyptists being honest with the facts? Or were they using the various ‘coping mechanisms’ of deliverance cults (a la Allison, [NT:CJ, 148ff]) to avoid the cognitive dissonance caused by prophetic delay and/or ‘nonoccurrence of predicted events’?


Bauckham goes on to analyze the heart of the issue and finds it to be both theologically legitimate and different from the ‘ordinary problem of unfulfilled prophecy’. It is an expression of the problem of evil, cast in all too familiar terms of ‘how long, O Lord?!’


“I believe there is a good reason at least to take the apocalyptic faith very seriously indeed. The problem of delay in apocalyptic is no ordinary problem of unfulfilled prophecy. The problem of delay is the apocalyptic version of the problem of evil. The apocalyptists were vitally concerned with the problems of theodicy, with the demonstration of God’s righteousness in the face of the unrighteousness of his world. They explored various possibilities as to the origins of evil and the apportioning of responsibility for evil, but of primary and indispensable significance for the apocalyptic approach to the problem of evil was the expectation of the End, when all wrongs would be righted, all evil eliminated, and God’s righteousness therefore vindicated. The great merit of the apocalyptic approach to theodicy was that it refused to justify the present condition of the world by means of an abstract exoneration of God from responsibility for the evils of the present. Only the overcoming of present evil by eschatological righteousness could vindicate God as righteous, and only hope of such a future triumph of righteousness could make the evils of the present bearable.“


“Of course, this was no armchair theodicy, but was produced by concrete situations of injustice and oppression in which the apocalyptists lived and suffered: the continued oppression of Israel by the Gentiles, and/ or the sufferings of the righteous remnant of Israel with whom the apocalyptists often identified themselves. It is not always easy for us to appreciate the apocalyptists’ concern for righteousness in these situations: the desire for Israel’s vindication and her enemies’ condemnation can seem to us like mere narrow nationalism, and the apocalyptists’ conviction of belonging to the righteous remnant which is unjustly suffering while sinners prosper can seem to us like arrogant self-righteousness. Undoubtedly those defects sometimes mar the apocalypses, but it is important to realize that the genuinely ethical character of the apocalyptic hope is far more dominant. What is at stake in the sufferings of God’s people is the righteousness of God, which, as often in the Old Testament, means at the same time justice for the oppressed and against the oppressor. It is true that the apocalyptists often fail to see that the problem of evil extends to the sinfulness of the righteous themselves, but they have an agonizingly clear grasp of the problem of innocent suffering. When the problem of theodicy is posed in that form I think we still have much to learn from them. Moreover, the special characteristic of the apocalyptists’ grasp of the problem is that, out of their own situation, they were able to see the universal dimensions of the problem of evil, the universal dominance of evil in ‘this present evil age’, as they came to call the present. This universal challenge to the righteousness of God demanded a universal righting of wrongs, an elimination of evil on a universal, even cosmic, scale.”


“I have dwelt on this aspect of apocalyptic because I hope it will enable us to see the real meaning of the problem of eschatological delay. The imminent expectation expresses the extremity of the situation, the intensity of the apocalyptists’ perception of the problem of evil, in its sheer contradiction of the righteousness of God. Surely God can no longer tolerate it. Yet he does: there is the problem of delay. What is greatly to the credit of the apocalyptists is that in this dilemma they abandoned neither the righteousness nor the sovereignty of God, which make up the theistic form of the problem of evil. Their belief in the powers of evil was not dualistic: God remained in ultimate control. And so in the face of the delay, they continued to hold that God is righteous - his eschatological righteousness is coming - and that he remains sovereign - the delay belongs to his purpose and the End will come at the time he has appointed. This is the tension of imminence and delay, the tension experienced by the theistic believer who, in a world of injustice, cannot give up his longing for righteousness. Thus we do not, I think, have the right to ask the apocalyptist to explain the delay in any complete sense, because the problem of evil is not susceptible to complete theoretical explanation. The tension which apocalyptic faith contained within itself is the tension which all forms of theism must somehow contain if they take the problem of evil seriously. It is a tension which cannot be resolved by explanation but only by the event of the final victory of God’s righteousness.”


[IMO: There are deep insights for us to learn from here, in both the comments by Bauckham and in the personal faith and loyalty to God of the ancient apocalyptists.]



Four. In continuity with Jewish apocalyptic, Christian apocalyptic was also about theodicy and/or the problem of evil.

Baukham had made the connection between the two in the Tyndale lecture:


“I conclude, therefore, that the apocalyptists rightly maintained the tension of imminence and delay, and that in some degree that tension must remain a feature of Christian theology. The promise of God’s eschatological righteousness presses in upon the present, contradicting the evils of the present, arousing our hopes, motivating us to live towards it. Because the righteousness of God himself is at stake in this expectation it demands immediate fulfilment. That the fulfilment is delayed will always contain a hard core of incomprehensibility: the greatest saints have protested to God against his toleration of evil, and have done so in faith, because of their conviction of his righteousness.




Although there are several areas of difference between Jewish and Christian apocalyptic perspectives, a couple of them come immediately to mind:


One. The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ, coupled with the advent of the Spirit into the life of the church mark both a ‘pivot point’ in time and a ‘proof’ that God’s promises will be fulfilled. God’s work of judgment and redemption are no longer exclusively in the future—they have begun (decisively) in the work of Christ, are presently manifested in the lives of His children, and will be ‘fully implemented’ in the Eschaton. [We see this perspective expounded over and over in the post-NT documents.]


Two. The omission by (some of) the Jewish apocalyptists to see the cosmic evil within themselves reaches full expression in the NT.


It is true that the [Jewish] apocalyptists often fail to see that the problem of evil extends to the sinfulness of the righteous themselves, but they have an agonizingly clear grasp of the problem of innocent suffering.” [Bauckham, cited above]


In the NT, we see constant emphases in Paul on the ‘new creation’ , ‘died and risen with Christ’, ‘sinful nature as judged’, “by nature children of wrath”, etc. in which the ‘old world/person’ was judged and was executed ‘in Christ’ on the Cross. It was the ‘inner eschaton’ which was the experience of every true believer.

We see this often in the post-NT Christian writers, that the church must ‘purify itself’ before the Lord returns. The sufferings of the present age are often interpreted as God’s means of purification for His children—hardships that cause us to focus on what is REALLY important, under the perspective of eternity.


Three. The sufferings of the righteous become more than just something that had to be ‘endured to the end’—they become a source of life to others. So Bauckham:


“To conclude: Revelation maintains the typical apocalyptic tension of imminence and delay, now sharpened and characterized in a peculiarly Christian manner. The imminent expectation focuses on the parousia of the already victorious Christ: and the book ends with the promise, ‘I am coming soon’, and the church’s urgent response, ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ (22:20). But the manner of the victory which Christ has already won - a sacrificial offering to ransom sinners from every nation (5:9) - gives fresh meaning to the delay, which now becomes the time of the church’s universal mission, characterized by suffering witness in discipleship to the crucified Christ. In this way, it should be noticed, the apocalyptic theodicy problem of innocent suffering gains a fresh perspective. Innocent suffering still cries out for eschatological righteousness (6:10; cf. 18:1–19:3). But on the other hand, God delays the parousia not simply in spite of his people’s sufferings, but actually so that his people may suffer that positive, creative suffering which comes to the followers of the cross of Christ.”



Again, this is not true ‘delay’ as in ‘wrong on the time of a specific prediction’. This is the problem of the ‘gap’ between need and deliverance. The martyrs cried out:


When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11 They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed. [Rev 6:9ff]


Notice that this is NOT a cry for ‘deliverance’, but a cry for ‘justice’—for God’s righteousness to be fully implemented upon the earth.


Personal note: At the time of this writing, I am intensely aware of this ‘gap’ problem. My life is filled with acute needs, unhealed pathologies, new crises, and seemingly hopeless situations – mostly in the lives of my loved ones. All of these issues have been, and are, the ‘topic’ of constant and intense prayer before the Father, and yet the ‘gap’ is still there. To be honest, I do sometimes see ‘things moving’ in the background and I see ‘options’ developing, and I attribute these to God’s omni-competent and omni-wise actions. But the pain and stress are acute. Why let His children suffer so? Why let the destructive persist in their ways? Why let the path be filled with obstacles and false turns?


I do have—of course—the advantage of hindsight. I have experienced these over 35 years now of walking with the Lord. He has His ‘audit trail’ and His ‘portfolio’ to show me, if I need it, so my confidence is His goodness is not really challenged. But it still hurts, and I still cry out in tears and anguish for deliverance for my loved ones (and for me in the process). This experience of ‘gap’—in which the compassionate goodness and/or rescuing justice of God is ‘hidden’—is theologically the same as the experience of ‘delay’ in much of Jewish/Christian apocalyptic—in which the compassionate goodness and/or rescuing justice of God is ‘hidden’.


Conclusion: The objection that the ‘apocalyptic prophet’ Jesus failed in a precise prediction is severely weakened by the fact that ‘mainstream’ apocalyptic prophets did not make such predictions. This turns the ‘delay’ question into something else—a question about theodicy , about the problem of evil/suffering, and about the good purposes of God.

Glenn Miller, Feb 2013


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