Is Jesus a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet?


It has been 2,000 years since Jesus promised to return and establish his Kingdom, forever defeating sin, death, and the devil. Sin and death are certainly still rampant, though. The devil’s role in this has become increasingly doubted, but from the Christian perspective he is certainly still active.

Jesus was many things. One of those things was an apocalyptic prophet. He prophesied about the end of many things, including the end of the world (as we know it). So, a question naturally arises: where is he? And how long do we wait before calling his “delay” a “failure”?

This is a question that disturbs Christians and exasperates skeptics. Christians—and the rest of the world in one way or another—cry out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” Skeptics are exasperated by the Christian’s stubbornness. Of course Jesus is a failed apocalyptic prophet, they say. How else do you explain his absence?

So, was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? It is a great question. And this surface level look at the facts certainly seems to suggest that he was. Every other prophet who has prophesied the end of the world has been wrong, and so the odds are certainly against Jesus. But let’s check the sources before we jump to any conclusions.

Who is Making This Claim & Why

Several scholars have tried to understand what and who Jesus was for over a century. The history of this debate is fascinating but outside of our scope here. Several of those scholars concluded that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Others said Jesus wasn’t apocalyptic at all. But some made the logical jump: if Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, then he must have been a failed prophet because he did not return when he said he would.

Our main focus here will be on one particular modern scholar, however. Most people today are aware of the claim that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet due to the work of Dr. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  

In Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2015), Ehrman attempts to make the case that Jesus was not considered God in the earliest generations of Christianity. One of his pieces of evidence is how the earliest Gospels accounts show Jesus prophesying the end of the world and his return.

The main texts Dr. Ehrman cites in his case are Mark 9:1 and 13:30 (which are paralleled in Matthew 16:28, 24:1-51; Luke 9:27, 21:5-36). Jesus told his followers in Mark 9:1 that “some of you standing here will not taste death before you see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” Jesus also said during the Olivet Discourse that “this generation will not pass away before all these [apocalyptic] things take place” (Mark 13:30). Ehrman adds, “[Jesus] thought the apocalyptic end would arrive very soon, before all disciples had died” (102).

Dr. Ehrman makes many claims in his book that are refuted by others. And he has continued to make contradictory statements and other odd claims about Jesus’s divinity and his alleged similarity to other historical figures. Ehrman does the same thing with his apocalyptic argument. He explains in more details in his earlier book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium,that Jesus was merely a dime-a-dozen apocalyptic preacher against the Roman occupation of Israel.

The point is that Bart Ehrman is driven to prove that Jesus was not considered God in the earliest church. Rather, he claims Jesus was considered merely an apocalyptic prophet. And in that, Ehrman concludes, Jesus failed. This is meant to undermine modern Christians’ belief in Jesus’s divinity.  

Introduction to Eschatology & Apocalypse

Fra Angelico, “Last Judgment,” c. 1450

At the heart of this debate are the terms eschatology and apocalypse. More recent popular media has distorted how we understand these terms today. Here we will discuss their precise meaning in biblical writings.

To put it simply, apocalypse is about the “unveiling of the counsels of God directly to the apocalyptic seer and thence to his readers,” according to the University of Oxford’s Christopher Rowland. A type of apocalyptic prophet arose in the years before Jesus’s birth. The apocalyptic prophet was a response to centuries of Israel’s occupation by foreign armies. This prophet was simply an evolution of prophecy, characterized by coming from an oppressed people group looking to make sense of the past and present while offering hope for the future. Sometimes this hope was related to preliminary earthly matters. Sometimes the hope was related to eternal matters. Often both.

Apocalyptic writings are written in heightened and visually fantastical images. This served to help the downtrodden who needed their theological imaginations reinvigorated. Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she created such extreme, almost grotesque characters in her novels. Her answer, as relayed to Walker Percy, is illustrative of apocalyptic literature: “for the near-blind you have to draw very large, simple caricatures.” Furthermore, the heightened language shows the real significance of the earthly events being considered in the apocalyptic message.

Eschatology has to do with the end of things—the end of the world and/or the end of an age—and final judgment. It is more concerned with final judgment than an imminent end, according to Yale Divinity School’s John J. Collins. Eschatology is also concerned with the transformation of things. In other words, the end of one thing leading to the beginning of another.

There is some debate as to whether every apocalypse includes eschatology or not. But for our purposes, we can begin making a few conclusions:

  1. Apocalyptic literature often includes eschatological messages not because they are synonymous but because they have the same aim: providing hope to the suffering and showing God’s faithfulness.
  2. Apocalyptic literature uses heightened language to reinvigorate theological imagination and show the significance of the core event described. The events may take place the way the heightened language describes them, but that is not the point.
  3. Eschatological literature is more focused on judgment than on an imminent end. The particular judgment under discussion may be imminent, but that is not the point.

These three points will help us to understand Jesus’s words in the Gospels about the coming “end”.

So, Is Jesus a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet? Some Considerations

There have been many helpful answers and considerations to this question that bear mentioning.

Ehrman’s Fatal Contradiction

Ehrman’s ad hoc arguments again contradict. He believes the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written relatively late, around AD 80-85. He argues the same for the earliest Gospel, Mark, dating it sometime between AD 65-70. We disagree, but let’s assume Ehrman is correct for a moment. This is thirty-five to fifty years after Jesus was crucified. If what Ehrman believes Jesus said would happen had not happened, and if the Gospel authors were willing to editorialize with reckless abandon, then why leave Jesus’s prophecy in the Gospels at all?

This is an important question because by the time Ehrman alleges this and the other Gospels were written, and given the life expectancies of that age, the vast majority of “this generation” would have already died (especially for Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, if not for Mark’s). As a matter of fact, elsewhere Ehrman writes that it is only conservative evangelicals who believe the Gospels were written earlier because of the desire to believe they were written by apostles and disciples who would have presumably been dead by the later dates. And Ehrman does not believe the Gospels were written by those whose names appear on them.

Recall that above Ehrman said Jesus thought the end would come during the lifetime of the apostles and disciples assembled before him. We know with relative certainty that the majority of the apostles were already martyred. The Gospels, in Ehrman’s timeline, would have been written by and to the generation/s after “this generation.” Something is amiss either with Ehrman’s timing, or his interpretation of the passage. Or both.

How much time?

Catholic scholar Brant Pitre has helpfully pointed out that Jesus’s apocalyptic speech (the Olivet Discourse) describes a large interval of time if we take what he says at face value. He describes the establishment of a covenant—which was always a centuries-long ordeal previously—along with wars and the preaching of the gospel to all nations (something we are still trying to do).

Interestingly, Jesus tells them that this generation “will not pass away” until these things happen (Matt 25:34), but one of the things that will happen is his people being “persecuted and put to death” (25:9). This must be an important tension to bear in mind. Furthermore, Pitre notes that several of Jesus’s parables about the coming Kingdom focus on the unknown time of his return (see Matt 24:43-44, 45-51). Lastly, as Ben Witherington has shown, Jesus could not technically be a failed apocalyptic prophet because, unlike those types of prophets, he never announced the time of his return.

It’s Temple, Really

N. T. Wright, a renowned British New Testament scholar, believes that Jesus is speaking about the coming destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Jesus referred to himself as the true Temple that would be destroyed and raised up in three days (Mark 14:58; cf. John 2:19). Yet he was also prophesying the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

It is important here to stop and remember everything we have already learned about apocalypticism and eschatology. Apocalypticism discusses regular events with heightened language to convey their true nature. Eschatology is concerned with judgment and transition, with the end of one order and the beginning of another. Both are typically meant to instill hope in the people to whom the words are meant. And in this case, Jesus’s words are meant for his disciples, and they were recorded in Gospels meant for a minority group of people known as “Nazarenes” or “Christians”.

Professor Wright points to the context of the apocalyptic passages to make his case. Jesus’s apocalyptic and eschatological prophecy comes when the disciples ask him a few questions. Jesus had just prophesied that not one stone would be left of the temple. It would be utterly destroyed. So, they ask him when this will take place and what signs will accompany the events.

Matthew gets more explicit for his Jewish audience which would have understood the fall of the temple in much more stark terms. “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” Though the temple lost some significance among some Diaspora Jews, those in Jerusalem revered it as a sign of expectant Jewish hopes. The temple was the place where God dwelled, where heaven met earth. Its destruction would have been understood as catastrophic to the order of the cosmos.

This is where past scholars went astray, Wright contends. Past scholars “were right to highlight ‘eschatology’ as being central to Jesus’s message (and to the beliefs and preaching of his first followers), but wrong to understand this ‘eschatology’ in terms of ‘the end of the world’ or ‘cosmic catastrophe.’” Jesus described it as a cosmic catastrophe because of its significance, not because it was the end of the world.

Jesus was talking about a transformation, not an end of all things. He was speaking of a new covenant, a new Temple, and a new Kingdom being ushered in over a period of time that will directly affect those of “this generation.” The mention of the Son of Man “returning on the clouds” was, according to Wright, simply meant remind people of the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel, a divine figure who represented judgment. Once being reminded of the significance of this figure, they would understand that these events inaugurated and confirmed that Jesus has been exalted to his Kingdom.

As is often the case, the problem is not that Christianity has too few answers for its critics. Rather, it is that it has too many! As we have just surveyed, there are several options. The language Jesus uses seems to imply a large amount of time. But if he is using apocalyptic imagery to describe a catastrophic world event to come, then he is referring to a short amount of time for a particular thing—the destruction of the temple—to take place. Both are viable options, and both pay closer attention to the text than Ehrman or other critics of the text.

And so, was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? Not even close. If Wright is correct, then Jesus’s prophecy came true in AD 70 with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.[i] Jesus was, if anything, a successful apocalyptic prophet. But even this sells him short. For he was, in the words of Swiss New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer, “the man who fits no formula.”

The Heart of the Matter

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was being led away to his execution in a Nazi prison camp in 1945, his last words were reportedly, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” That is the proper message for the faithful to take away from our successful apocalyptic and eschatological prophet, Jesus. It is a grand hope. For each of us, whatever it is, our temples will all crumble and fall. But there is a greater Temple and a greater hope available to you. Seek him and you shall find him, for he is never far from any of us.

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[i] Note that this is not an endorsement of “preterism,” the idea that all prophecies about the end times have already happened. Rather, Wright is saying that these particular verses are not about Jesus’s Second Coming, though others are.

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apocalyptic,armageddon,bart ehrman,end times,eschatology,failed apocalyptic prophet,Jesus,prophecy,prophet