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Prophecy in the Bible

Prophecy in the Bible
by Dave E. Matson

A failed prophecy is one of the surest signs of a manmade Bible, for God's prophecy cannot fail. What greater failure can we find than Jesus' central prediction that the world would come to an end in the first century? In highbrow terms, this might be referred to as the eschatological problem of the apocalyptic interpretation.

The interesting thing about Jesus' prophecy is that it is repeated so many times and in so many different ways that you would think that the Bible-believer would throw up his hands in despair! Dr. Mattill, Jr. lists 91 passages in the New Testament (Mattill, 1995, p.225-228) that speak of the nearness of the end-time. Mountains of evidence, of course, rarely moves the Bible-believer, who usually lives in a fantasy world governed by wishful thinking. They will find an "explanation" for every one of those 91 passages no matter what it takes. However, such piecemeal patchwork at the expense of a clear pattern is already an admission of defeat.

When pressed on this matter, the Bible-believer will often cite 2 Peter 3:8-9:

And here is one point, my friends, which you must not lose sight of: with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. It is not that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise, as some suppose, but that he is very patient with you, because it is not his will for any to be lost, but for all to come to repentance.
(2 Peter 3:8-9 NEB)

This passage has been seized upon as a license to turn days into thousands of years! If you read the full context of the letter, however, you will find that the author is admonishing his listeners to wait a little longer. He doesn't say, "Forget it! It will be at least 2000 years before anything happens." He doesn't say that one day is the same as 1000 years. He fully expects the end-time to arrive in their lifetime, only there has been a small delay for their benefit. Therefore, they are to keep themselves free of blemishes so that they will be ready when the time comes. 2 Peter is a letter that was written to people living at the time.

That Bible-believers expect their dubious interpretation of this one passage to cancel out the clear meaning of ninety-one opposing passages gives us some feeling as to how their minds really work. They are committed to a doctrine, not to exploring what the Bible really says.

2 Peter was one of the last books to be written in the New Testament 11, and it had to cheer up the troops because nothing had happened. Promises of an immediate end-time had not been fulfilled; the flock was getting restless. Thus, God's sense of timelessness was appealed to. In several other late verses a similar appeal is made for patience, and the idea of an immediate end of the world is played down. Such verses, however, do not cancel out the obvious meaning of the dozens of verses promising an immediate end-time. They just contradict one another.

Today, nearly 2000 years later, half again the age of the world as the ancients perceived it to be, still nothing has happened. That, in spite of numerous biblical promises that the end-time was "at hand," the time "near," or that Jesus was coming "soon." The prophecy of the Revelation of John is not even sealed up for later generations, as was Daniel's prophecy, because the time is so near (Revelation 22:10). The appointed time has grown "very short" (1 Corinthians 7:29). Indeed, it is "the last hour" (1 John 2:18), and Jesus is already "at the door" (James 5:8-9). Even now "the axe is laid to the root of the trees" (Matthew 3:7-10).

Biblical proof that the Christian community originally expected the world to come to an immediate end may be found in 2 Peter 3:4. We are told that scoffers arose in those days, and they criticized the Christian belief that the end-time was imminent, a doctrine that was beginning to look increasingly foolish as the years slipped by. Such criticism hit home (and hurt) precisely because those first Christians expected the world to come to an immediate end, a belief that is preserved to this day in various passages throughout the New Testament. Who taught the first Christians that the end-time was near, if not Jesus? How can one pretend that Jesus believed otherwise? I would think that the major doctrines of a new religion must reflect its founder, at least in the earliest stages.

Let's now take a close look at a few of those 91 verses that support an early end-time:

I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all.
(Matthew 24:34 NEB)
Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died.
(Matthew 24:34 TEV)

Exactly what is it that those people would witness? The Bible is only too happy to oblige.

As soon as the distress of those days has passed, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give her light, the stars will fall from the sky, the celestial powers will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign that heralds the Son of Man. All the peoples of the world will make lamentation, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory. With a trumpet blast he will send out his angels, and they will gather his chosen from the four winds, from the farthest bounds of heaven on every side.
(Matthew 24:29-31 NEB)

Pretty impressive, huh? Those early Christian folks were to live to see it all. Such was the glorious prophecy. Now come the excuses.

Some biblicists are so desperate that they actually deny the connection between Matthew 24:34 and the earth-shaking events of Matthew 24:29-31. However, the connection is so obvious that even Gleason Archer, that stout defender of biblical inerrancy, accepts it (Archer, p.338). Need I say more?

The main argument, which Archer and others give, claims that genea, the Greek word translated as "generation," should have been translated as "race." Thus, the Jewish race would live to see it all.

Not only is this meaning uncommon for genea, but it is nowhere found in the New Testament! It is a poor translation that uses a rare meaning for a word when a common meaning will do nicely. Few, if any, translations use "race" for that very reason. Even the NIV, which often goes to extremes for the sake of doctrine, renders genea as "generation," leaving "race" as a footnote option. With the Bible translators solidly behind "generation," that should settle it. Moreover, the meaning given by "generation" is in harmony with the other early verses in the New Testament. By comparison, the idea of a race living to see it all is an awkward expression that does not fit in very well.

Archer recognizes most of these problems and tries to explore the possibilities in Aramaic, which Jesus may have spoken. But the word he has in mind (from the Syrian Peshitta) can also mean "generation." What reason do we have for believing that this word was rendered incorrectly in the Greek? (Most scholars believe that Matthew was originally written in Greek.) No reasons are forthcoming from Archer, let alone good ones.

Nor should we overlook the general context of Matthew 24. Jesus gives his disciples the signs that they should look for when the end-time comes. In its original setting this revelation appears to have been a personal warning to the disciples so that they would not be caught short. Such a warning would have been a farce if matters were not coming to a head in their generation.

Another favorite defense, mentioned by Archer, assumes that the generation that Matthew 24:34 refers to is the one which will actually experience the end-time. Accordingly, that future generation would not perish before the Tribulation had run its course. Some of them would witness Jesus' return in all its glory.

This desperate interpretation is just a baldfaced attempt to rewrite the text. A quick spin through several excellent translations of the Bible, such as the one I quoted, will be enough to put it to route. Do check it out!

And he went on to say, "I tell you, there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power."
(Mark 9:1 TEV)
I assure you that there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Kingdom of God."
(Luke 9:27 TEV)
For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each one according to his deeds. I assure you that there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Son of Man come as King."
(Matthew 16:27-28 TEV)

The Kingdom of God is to arrive with power! Some of those listening to Jesus will live to see it happen! Can anything be clearer than that?

The Bible-believer, of course, must deny the obvious or lose his shirt. Here are the chief excuses as to why these prophecies did not come true:

DEFENSE A: Since the transfiguration immediately follows in the text, it is often claimed as a preliminary fulfillment of the above. The disciples Peter, John and James witnessed a portion of the transfiguration miracle and, thus, fulfilled the prophecy.

Gleason Archer (Archer, p.327), normally quick to defend the Bible at any cost, rejects this solution. The discussion during the transfiguration centers on Jesus' coming death (departure) whereas the prophecy talks about his return (arrival). The transfiguration had to precede any of the hypothetical stages of Jesus' return, and, therefore, could not be a partial fulfillment of the prophecy.

A second problem arises as the transfiguration was only six days away, which would make Jesus' statement trivial and silly. Of course, some of those standing there would still be alive six days later! Obviously, the transfiguration is not what Jesus had in mind.

DEFENSE B: A preliminary fulfillment is claimed on the basis of Acts 2:2-4. (The Holy Spirit descended on the church at Pentecost.) However, the recipe calls for the Son of Man with angels, not for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the babbling of tongues!

The prophecy makes no mention of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and certainly does not associate it with a preliminary phase of Jesus' return (Mattill Jr, 1979, p.60). The prophecy, whether given by Matthew, Mark or Luke above, makes no mention of an initial phase of Jesus' return, one separated by 2000 years or more from the main fulfillment! The text is simply being rewritten on the basis of two arbitrary assumptions.

Dr. Mattill, Jr. also shows that Luke's "seeing of the kingdom" refers to a physical event (as in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Mark) and not to some inner vision as some claim (Mattill Jr., 1979).

This defense also suffers from the same problem as above, namely that it makes Jesus' statement trivial and silly. Of course, some of those standing there would be alive a year or two later. Clearly, no adequate answer is to be found in this defense.

DEFENSE C: The destruction of Jerusalem is viewed by a few Bible-believers as a judgment brought by Jesus. In that sense Jesus has returned. But, where is his physical glory? Where are his mighty angels? Roman battering rams and legions did the job! Even Gleason Archer finds that this event "...could hardly be said to display Christ's regal splendor or the glory of His mighty angels..." (Archer, p.327). It is pure desperation that connects Jerusalem's destruction with Mark 9:1 and Matthew 16:27-28.

DEFENSE D: The spread of Christianity has actually been offered as a defense, at least for the parallel account of Luke 9:27. But Alas! That has been answered as well.

Against the identification of the coming of the Kingdom with the outpouring of the Spirit and the astonishing progress of Christianity in the first century is to be set the fact that the people who lived through these great events did not make the identification. Paul, who was at the head of the triumphant march of the gospel through the Empire, still looked for some greater thing.
(T.W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus, pp.281-282;
from Mattill Jr., 1979, p.62)

We could go on and on, belaboring the obvious. The New Testament is chock-a-block full of imminent end-time prophecy, and no amount of squirming and hoop-dancing will change the fact that Jesus was dead wrong in making such a prophecy. Edward Blair, who bends over backwards to be fair, sums up what every good Bible scholar knows:

The whole New Testament represents [the time of Christ's coming] as near. Jesus apparently expected it during the generation of those living when he was speaking. ... Paul was convinced that it was near ... Other New Testament writers expected it soon...
(Blair, 1987, p.503)

A. J. Mattill, Jr. summarizes the mentality of those first century Christians:

The early Christians thought of themselves as living in the last century, not in the first, for the hammer of the cosmic clock had risen to strike the last hour.
(Mattill Jr., 1979, p.5)

The working brain can only conclude that the Bible is a manmade product, given that its central prophecy by Jesus was dead wrong.

11. 2 Peter was written after Peter's time. The author quotes Paul's writings, which were not part of scripture during Peter's active lifetime.

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Blair, Edward P. 1987. The Illustrated Bible Handbook
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Mattill Jr., A. J. 1979. Luke and the Last Things
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