This is a special bonus post in my Comparing Religions series... I originally wrote it as a section of the post about evidence of fraud, but it seemed to work better thematically as its own post.
Another point worth considering is the question of false prophecies, that fail to come true on schedule. As the Book of Deuteronomy indicates, these are one possible sign of a false prophet:
You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?”
If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. (18:21-22)
As an example, the Watchtower Society is particularly notorious for a history of making false predictions and then creatively reinterpreting them. For example they claimed Jesus would return to Earth in 1914, and then when that failed to occur decided that that date was when he started reigning "invisibly", a serious anticlimax.
It would be tedious, and require an entire dissertation, to enumerate all of the examples of failed prophecy among various cults. (To be truly complete I ought to try to examine at least the major religions, but this post will be mainly Christianity-centered.)
(Incidentially, "prophecy" is a much broader concept than predicting the future—a prophet is anyone with a message from God (or one of the gods, in polytheistic religions); and such messages can concern the past or present just as often as predicting the future. The questions "What is God like?" and "How should people behave?" are central to how prophecy is conceived in Abrahamic religions. So the colloquial definition of prophecy,as "predicting the future" is far too narrow to describe prophecy as classically conceived. Neverthless, prophecy in the Bible certainly does also contain numerous predictions about the future, and that is the concern of this post.)
Prophecy and Evidence
Obviously, if a prophecy comes true in a verifiable manner, that counts as (some) evidence for the religion in question. (How much evidence, depends on a variety of factors, including (1) how certain it is that the prophecy was written down before the events it predicted, (2) how unlikely the event was to occur naturally, and (3) the degree to which the new prophecy is consistent with previous revelations, etc.)
Conversely, if a prophecy has not come to pass, this could count as evidence against the religion. It is however important to make a distinction between an unfulfilled prophecy, and a falsified prophecy.
An unfulfilled prophecy is one that simply has not happened yet. For example, the claim of all Abrahamic religions that God will raise every human being from the dead at the Final Judgement has not been fulfilled yet. However, the fact that this has not happened yet does not mean it is not going to! After all, events in the future are not (apart from the prophecy itself) observable in the present. (Of course, the universal resurrection of the dead is quite impossible in a Naturalistic worldview, but here we are discussing religious worldviewsin which God exists, and has the power to do miracles.)
Thus, an unfulfilled prophecy does not necessarily provide much evidence or or against a religion, unless there is good reason to think it should already have happened, or that it is impossible for it to occur.
(In Bayesian terms, if a prophecy being fulfilled counts as evidence for a religion, a prophecy not being fulfilled always counts as some evidence against the religion, so long as there is a nonzero chance that the prophecy could have already been fulfilled by now. But under favorable circumstances, for example when the prophecy is plausibly about the distant future, the amount of disconfirmation can be quite small.)
On the other hand, a falsified prophecy is one that is definitely not going to occur. (At least, absent some major reinterpretation of what it means. Such reinterpretation is often a logically possibility, but one that must be paid for evidentially if the new interpretation is implausible. One should be especially suspicious when the prophet himself engages in creative reinterpretation, since there are obvious self-justifying motivations there. Especially if the prophet tried to convince people to take it literally before the events were falsified, and only spins the prophecy after people start complaining it didn't happen.)
The most common reason for a prophecy to be falsified is if the prophet placed some date or time constraint on the prophecy. If the date comes to pass, and the event didn't occur, and if there is no valid excuse for God to pull a fast one and change his plan, then whoops it looks like you've been following a false prophet! Time to repent and find a better religious guide. On the other hand, a merely unfulfilled prophecy is perfectly compatible with the truth of a religion.
Swords to Plowshares
All of this makes it sound like prophecy exists solely for purposes of apologetic arguments. From this perspective, a not-yet fulfilled prophecy is a wash, and may seem irrelevant.
This is a misconception. Just because a prophecy is unfulfilled, doesn't mean it isn't important to the present. In fact, if it weren't spiritually relevant in some way to the time period before the fulfillment, there would be no point in God revealing it. For example, when Isaiah says that:
[The Lord] will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (2:4)
it is immediately obvious that this prophecy (universal peace) has not yet come true. But that is not the only thing going on in the mind of a reader. We are also struck by the thought that it ought to be true. The goal is accepted as valid by the heart, even before the mind rejects it as a fact.
Ending war is precisely the sort of thing that a benevolent God should do. And if he has not done it yet, it still tells us something about God that he has promised to do it. And it tells us something about the human race, that we instinctively accept it as an ideal, even as we fall so far short of the reality. This is why the prophet goes on to say:
"Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD." (2:5)
In other words, the belief in future universal peace can inspire us to be peacemakers in a more limited way today. Even though it will take an act of God to make the reality of peace universal, taking it as the ideal still influences how we see the world of today. (Indeed, it is probably not be an exaggeration to say that the modern international ideal of working towards "world peace" would probably not exist if the Hebrew prophets had never spoken. This ethical imperative still inspires us as moderns, even if many have forgotten its source.)
The Second Coming
With this in mind, let us consider Jesus' own claims about his Second Coming, since this is one of the few skeptical objections specific to Christianity which is worth taking seriously.
The ministry of Jesus intersects prophecy along multiple axes. For example, there is a conversation to be had about the many ways in which Jesus' ministry fulfilled the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. This was the topic of some previous posts.
But Jesus also made some predictions about the future, and the most important one has to do with his return to Earth to judge the world (and to usher in the universal peace between nations we've just been discussing!) This is called the Second Coming.
For those less familiar with Christian theology: it is important that this Second Coming does not refer to some new incarnation as another human person born subsequent to Jesus Christ. It refers to Jesus himself returning to Earth with the same human flesh that was born of a Jewish girl, nailed to a cross, and which is now immortal and glorified—but still fully human!—in the immediate presence of God. (Whatever that means... Christians do not believe that God the Father literally has a body, so the sense of "presence" here is some mode other than spatial location. In the Lord's Prayer, "Heaven" is identified as the place where God's will is perfectly done.)
As it says in Psalm 110, in a verse quoted by the New Testament many times:
The LORD says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.” (Psalm 110:1)
In Christian interpretation, this passage means: God says to the Messiah, ascend to where I am and rule from there, until some future time when I will make all of your enemies submit to you. This logically implies, that there will be a period of time after Christ ascends to Heaven, but before everyone recognizes him as their Lord.
Jesus on the Timing
Now obviously, if Jesus really talked about his coming back after an absence, this indicates that he saw at least some chronological gap between his present ministry and that future date. The Gospels also portray Jesus as foreseeing his own humiliation and death. This indicates that he had a far better grasp on reality than the typical first-century Messianic claimant, who expected to overthrow the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom in Judea, along the lines of the Maccabean revolt which took place a couple centuries before.
But it is sometimes claimed (especially by certain biblical scholars) that Jesus made a point of predicting that his return would be soon, within a single generation; and that when this failed to occur the Church retrospectively changed their understanding. This is a serious accusation, and if true would significantly affect the New Testament's credibility. It is true that there are a few passages in the Gospels which can be interpreted as making such predictions. But this interpretation is not simple, seeing as there are also a great many passages indicating the opposite.
In fact, in most of his parables about the subject, Jesus usually implies that the Bridegroom's or Master's return will take a long time, and that many people will get tired of waiting. Again and again, he makes a point of saying that the timing will be a surprise:
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matt 24:42)
and that not even he could predict the date:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
A More Problematic Passage
But what about the passage in which Jesus says:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matt 24:34) ?
In his essay “The World’s Last Night”, C.S. Lewis interpreted this as a rare example of Jesus being in error, writing that:
It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.
but he suggests it is nevertheless compatible with Christian theology because:
The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance [i.e. Mark 13:32] grow side by side.
However I do not accept St. Lewis' interpretation as a valid solution to this problem. Yes, Jesus did confess ignorance (at least with respect to his human knowledge), but the appropriate response to ignorance is to remain silent, not to make a bold and possibly erroneous prediction!
It is true that in orthodox Chalcedonian theology, Christ is regarded as being fully human as well as fully divine. His human nature was just like ours in every way but sin. And ignorance is not the same thing as sin. Thus, even though Christ was God and therefore knew everything with respect to his divine omniscience, it does not follow that he knew every fact according to human modes of knowledge. (Presumably an infinite number of facts can't fit into an ordinary human brain, at least in this life, even if that human brain is fully united with the divine Logos.) Anyway, St. Luke tells us quite explicitly that Jesus "grew in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52) as a child, and growth in wisdom implies learning.
However, none of this leads me to think that Christ could have made a major blunder of theology with respect to his public teaching. After all, Christ's words were guided by the Holy Spirit, even more so than in the case of an ordinary prophet, seeing as he was filled with the Spirit "without measure" (John 3:34). Christ's teachings in the New Testament have spiritual authority; and thus it would be a major, major problem for Christianity if Jesus had given an untrue prophecy, especially about such a central point.
My Preferred Explanation
I would rather explain this passage with reference to its full context. All of the verses just quoted are contained within a discourse called the Olivet Discourse, which begins with a question asked by the disciples on the Tuesday before the Crucifixion. There are three different versions of this speech in different gospels. Notably, in St. Matthew's version, the disciples' question has two parts (numbers and brackets mine):
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said,
(1) “when will this happen, [i.e. the Destruction of the Temple]
(2) and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
It can be seen that these are two separate questions, and that (whatever the disciples might have thought when they asked them) the correct chronological answers two these two questions are also quite different.
Regarding (1), the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans, which is indeed within one generation (the Jews conventionally reckoned a generation as being 40 years long, and Jesus died around 30-33 AD). So this part of the prophecy is actually a spectacular success.
(Many of Jesus' subsequent predictions also seem to have come true: that Christians would go on to be persecuted, that the Gospel would be preached to all nations, that many false prophets would arise, and that "wars and rumors of wars" would go on during all this time, as they always do. However, the emphasis of this part of the speech is more about Jesus forewarning the disciples about the problems they will face, rather than gratifying the disciples' curiosity about the exact shape of future history.)
Regarding (2), Jesus has not yet returned, so there's been a delay of at least 1988 years, as of the time of this blog post.
And we can give up any idea of an "invisible" coming, or coming in an obscured way as some other historical person, seeing as Jesus is pretty explicit that his Second Coming will be totally obvious to everyone when it finally happens:
“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.
So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
So to fully answer the disciples' question, Jesus needs to provide two different chronological answers, and in fact Jesus gives both correct answers—the answer to (1) is "this generation shall certainly not pass away", while the answer to (2) is that nobody has any clue when it will happen, not even the Son himself! Without this assumption, it is difficult to read the text as even consistent with itself, let alone history.
Indeed, the account in Luke's Gospel does seem to anticipate a chronological gap between (1) and (2), with a pivot at the verse which says:
Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
which seems to suggest an unknown interval of time, and separates the predictions related to the Destruction of the Temple from the predictions related to the End Times (although not from the sayings about timing).
It is true that the chronological answers to (1) and (2) are not clearly organized in the Gospels as we have them. The Synoptic Gospels were most likely written before the Destruction of the Temple (arguments to the contrary tend to be based on the Methodologically Naturalist assumption that predictive prophecy is impossible).
Jesus himself may have been grouping the two events thematically, as two examples of Tribulation/Judgement. Not unlike how the prophet Isaiah likes to talks about the Resurrection and the Return from Exile in conjunction with each other. Both are showing history more from God's perspective, rather than from a human perspective. (We already knew what the human perspective looks like!)
It seems probable that the disciples themselves were confused by this, and did not clearly distinguish Jesus' words about timing with respect to their proper referents. The fact that the Church preserved four different accounts of Jesus' life, in which the wordings of the same speech is often slightly different, acknowledges the reality that Jesus is a historical figure and that our knowledge of his life is mediated through human witnesses.
(This does not, I think, contradict any Christian doctrines about divine inspiration of the Gospels. The Christian version of inspiration is that the Holy Spirit guided the writing process so as to reveal the truths he wanted to reveal; and that every single part of the Bible is, in this sense, the word of God; and thus authoritative and Christ-revealing. It does not mean that all the truths in Scripture are always exposited in an equally clear and manifest fashion, without obscurity. Nor does it mean that the documents are in no way limited by the human perspectives of their authors, or somehow not subject to the vicissitudes of the textual copying process. The Bible is divine words and human words at the same time, and neither authorship negates the other. This means that the Bible is not always the book that Fundamentalists want it to be. But I very much doubt that having that book would have been good for us!)
As for the similar sounding verse in Mark 9:1:
And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."
I would interpret this verse as referring, not to the Second Coming (nor to the Transfiguration which immediately follows, as the guy who divided up the Bible into chapters apparently thought) but rather to Jesus' Resurrection and the inauguration of the Church, which was indeed the establishment of God's kingdom in Christian theology.
Jesus overcoming human sin and death, appearing to chosen witnesses, and sending the Holy Spirit to soften human hearts, does not seem like quite as much of an inconsequential anti-climax as a hypothetical coming in 1914 that didn't seem to change anything for anyone. But then I would say that as a Christian, wouldn't I?
Since this is a series about comparing evidence for different religions, the question must be raised: to what extent should these sorts of rationalizations count as plausible explanations to skeptics, or for those in non-Christian traditions?
Here, I think it is important to get over the idea that a problem in biblical theology must either be a killing blow which refutes a religion entirely; or else it is no big deal and can be safely ignored after one accepts a pat explanation. It is possible for an apparent theological discrepancy to provide some mild evidence against a religion, if there are plausible-sounding explanations, but those explanations also seem a bit contrived in other respects. To determine how significant the problem is, one would then need to consider the rest of the cumulative case for the religion.
So it is perfectly possible for me to admit that some verses of the Bible provide some evidence against Christian doctrines, without immediately throwing the whole system overboard. Instead one has to accept some things on the credit of the system as a whole. I hope I am showing the same courtesy to the non-Christian religions, by not over-emphasizing isolated difficulties, but instead trying to assess what seem to be the key issues.
It would be quite astonishing if there were no difficulties to get over in the interpretation of any text which is thousands of years old, and which purports to reveal the intrusion of something from outside the spacetime continuum. If there were no difficulties, that would itself be a difficulty, since it would be the mark of a human-made religion with no sharp corners or untidy edges. (Quantum mechanics is weird, why shouldn't theology be too?)
Descent of the Spirit
OK, somebody might say, but even if you can get over the fact of Jesus' own predictions, it's still true that he didn't fulfill all of the Messianic prophecies, or any of them in the particular way that the Jews were expecting. The Jews expected the Messiah to set up an earthly kingdom. Jesus didn't. Even if you can get over the comments about "this generation", isn't this still an ad hoc attempt to get over the embarrassing problem that Jesus never fulfilled half the stuff he was supposed to do? The swords were never all beaten into plowshares, and it doesn't look like our nuclear missiles are going to be reforged into tractors anytime soon either!
I agree that this delay may seem strange to a person who is not themselves caught up into the story of Jesus. But I do not think it is so arbitrary as it might seem at first. Even in the period between Jesus' Resurrection and his Ascension to Heaven, it was still hard for the disciples to give up the idea of an immediate earthly kingdom:
After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:3-6)
Jesus reminds them, quite conspicuously, that the time of the Second Coming is unknown, and re-directs their attention to a different promise:
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (1:7-8, emphasis mine)
Given these words, it seems pretty hard to imagine that St. Luke (the author of Acts) was under the impression that Jesus had committed himself to a definite timetable for the Second Coming.
The central story of Christianity is that of a rejected, suffering, forgiving Messiah. What is the natural conclusion of the story? A ruling, peacemaking Messiah, yes; but first something else. I am afraid that from God's point of view, the next installment of the story involves us. Christ says to his disciples: "I bled and died for you out of love. Now you must do the same thing. And if you are willing to do it, I will give you my Spirit to guide you." [Not a direct quote, but clear enough from the Gospels.]
I can see why one would not want to hear these words, but from an aesthetic and theological point of view, they make perfect sense. If we humans are in the image of God, then wherever God leads, we must follow. As he sacrificed his live for us, we must now sacrifice our lives for one another, even for those who do not yet believe. We too must live out the Christian life, even if it means we will be rejected and despised (in which case we must also forgive!).
We are called to be saints; the holy ones of God. How can we think we will be excused from suffering? If Christ had come in a single generation, then where would St. Francis and St. Corrie Ten Boom and Mother Theresa be? Where would the martyrs be? Nowhere; they would not exist.
Nor should we excuse ourselves from the call to holiness. Even if our own spiritual fruits are not yet so great as these, there is no telling what God may do with us in the future, if we allow him.
Many generations of Christians have been tempted to think that things have gotten bad enough that Christ should return and put an end to human misery. Yet, looking back on history we can see that the human growth and development of the Church would have been incomplete, without all the chances to build monasteries, universities, reformations, modern science, civil rights movements, etc. All of these historical situations—with their unique mixes of good and bad—have been settings where the saints have needed to creatively adapt the life of Christ, to new situations. (In another thousand years, perhaps we will be thinking how much we would have lost if history had ended before space travel!)
We human beings may often fail the tests that history presents, but I do not think this matters quite as much as one might think. Even failure allows for learning, just as suffering allows for growth. To be sure, the whole story would come to nothing, if Christ were not coming to deliver us in the end. But if he does bring the whole thing to a satisfactory conclusion, I think we can see why that conclusion might be better if it comes later, rather than sooner.
Next: Moral Depth