The Human Faces of God: apocalyptic contortions (part 1)

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 8: “Jesus Was Wrong” (part 1)

I am a full-on, unapologetic non-inerrantist, and I was before reading this book. I have long maintained that the Bible is made up of the opinions and frequently faulty understandings of its human authors rather than divinely revealed and guaranteed dispensations of truth. I have not only been heretofore untroubled by Thom Stark’s exposure of the Bible’s factual and ethical shortcomings, as a lifelong lover of the Bible, I have actually relished the information as revealing its true nature.

But that was the Old Testament. In chapter 8, Stark comes calling on the New Testament. And in spite of myself, I find it rather uncomfortable.

Was Jesus wrong? Not just ignorant about the day or the hour of his return; not even just mistaken about what the smallest of all the seeds of the earth was, or whether Moses wrote the Torah, or the historicity of Noah’s flood. In this chapter, Stark dares us to consider that Jesus may have been wrong about a very important aspect of his mission. Stark takes on virtually all the different eschatological viewpoints, and even for those without firm commitments, this will be tough stuff for virtually anyone who calls Jesus Lord. C.S. Lewis famously called Matthew 24.35 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible,” and while Stark might point us to other passages perhaps better qualified for that distinction, he would surely agree that Lewis was speaking from a more accurate understanding of the New Testament’s eschatology than most modern Christian eschatology junkies!

Chapter 6 and this chapter are the two longest in the book, differing in a scant three pages’ length. But because this one was much heavier for me and for many of my readers, I have decided to take more than one post to unpack his discussion. This post will deal more with backgrounding the issues, while the next will pick up where it got really sticky for me as a somewhat nuanced preterist.

The first argument, with which I was actually quite familiar already, is that Jesus’ style and message resembled those of the first century Jewish apocalyptic prophets (following Sanders, etc.), several of whom we know from Josephus and other sources. Stark explains the origin of the apocalyptic genre as second temple era theodicy. The ancient prophets had blamed their national misfortunes on Israel’s sinfulness, and had prescribed repentance as the cure. Well, Israel did repent, but to little effect: they returned from captivity, but despite their redoubled devotion remained political nobodies under the thumb of the Greeks and then the Romans for centuries. This called for a change of explanation: originally it was God punishing them, but now it was God’s enemies who were persecuting them. So, the philosophers came up with a reasonable solution: these enemies would get theirs in the end, even as the faithful were awarded. This was essentially a return to the dualistic cosmology left behind with the rise of monotheism and the denial of other spiritual powers. Here is where the familiar Satan comes into the picture as the archenemy of God; here also began the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

But here’s the thing: within the apocalyptic mindset, the expectation of an afterlife and a final judgment vindicated God for allowing unwarranted adversity only if “the end that justified the means [were] conceived of as imminent. Yahweh’s righteousness was expected to be displayed in the fact that he could not suffer the suffering of his people for very long” (p. 164).

A belief in the imminency of the eschaton was a foundational tenet of second temple Judaism’s apocalyptic movements. It was a belief shared by the followers of Jesus, for the very good reason that the various “time statements” of Jesus throughout the Gospels affirmed it in no uncertain terms: “Surely I say unto you, this generation shall not pass…”; “Some of you standing here will not taste death until…” etc., etc. But this was by no means the only affinity between the Jesus Movement and other Jewish apocalyptic groups. Stark cites a long list of assumptions and beliefs from Klaus Koch and Dale Allison, which all point to the conclusion that Jesus, if the Synoptics are to be trusted, was firmly a part of a much larger “millenarian” tradition, distinctions aside.

Stark supplies full text from the Synoptics that show exactly what Jesus predicted about the future. Interestingly, in addition to the standard-fare expectation of tribulation before the end, Stark states that one of the main distinctives of Jesus teaching in the Gospels was anticipation that the Messiah himself should suffer before ultimate victory. Another distinctive emphasis of Jesus, though not exclusive to him (e.g. the Qumran community), was that of a “realized eschatology” — the idea that aspects of the future world order could be realized even within this current world world order. This whole section reads like a primer to preterism, showing how Jesus unequivocally prophesied his return in glory and the judgment of the nations as within his disciples’ lifetime. Old news for me. I won’t summarize his arguments here, but if you think Jesus’ prophecies could be wrangled into introducing a two-thousand-year-and-counting gap between his disciples’ lifetime and the end times, you’ll want to read this chapter.

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  • You cheated. Get on with it! 🙂

  • I used to worry about “problems” in the Bible until I realised: this book IS ambiguous and if God is behind it He wants it like that. Not only does He want us to exercise our minds and puzzle things out, he wants us to exercise our ethics in that He offers a text which CAN be misused by evil doers for their purposes and by the righteous for theirs.

    God, if he is the author, wants people who possess the Bible to have no advantage over those who don’t. At the end of the day all are judged by their works, regardless of how many verses they claim supports their life. Thus you can live an utterly abhorrent life whilst obeying 99% of the commands (stoning adulteresses etc.) and be externally righteous but condemned by God. The Hindu street vendor who has never heard anything of Jesus will trump you at judgement. How many theologians plan to quote scripture at God in their defence? Laughable!

    Having said that, Mt 24 is best read (granted ambiguities) as being about the destruction of the temple and warnings to followers to get their butts out of Judea when Rome comes down hard.

    But, could Jesus have been mistaken? Certainly! He was “sinless” but mistakes are not necessarily sins. I think Jesus expected the Kingdom would come in real power and it didn’t. He expected his followers to do greater deeds than him and we’re lame…

  • I admit that this chapter was kind of hard to swallow for me. Not because I think Stark’s argument is completely wrong, but because in my mind it is very uncomfortable to assert Jesus was extremely wrong about a very important aspect of his mission.

    I mean, sure I can accept that Jesus was an entirely authentic human being and a product of his own time and culture. Thus, I see no problem with accepting the idea that Jesus held erroneous and antiquated views on the authorship of the Pentateuch, on the cosmological makeup of the universe, etc. But to say that Jesus had such a glaring misunderstanding of what his mission entailed, is (in my opinion) somewhere that even angels wouldn’t dare to tread. How can Jesus fully reveal the Father if he thought it was the Father’s mission for him to return in fiery judgment and vengeance.

    I’m not convinced of the argument that Jesus really expected things to happen as Stark lays out, but it is certainly a problem that needs to be wrestled with.

    • How can Jesus fully reveal the Father if he thought it was the
      Father’s mission for him to return in fiery judgment and
      vengeance.

      An excellent question indeed. No answer yet…I’ll certainly be mulling this
      one over for awhile.

      • On the contary, how can Jesus fully reveal the Father WITHOUT doing so?

        In fact, He has done so and is doing so now.

    • How can Jesus fully reveal the Father if he thought it was the
      Father’s mission for him to return in fiery judgment and
      vengeance.

      The Bible doesn’t claim Jesus “fully” reveals the Father nor that it was his primary mission. Rather he was sent to announce and inaugurate the Kingdom (Mk 1:15; 38) of God. But the arrival of Elohim, the Judge is always ambiguous because it’s good news for the oppressed (we in the west really don’t get this) and bad news for the oppressor as justice will be established. God’s kingdom/rule and justice/righteousness is something you seek (Mt 6:33), pray for, not something you fear. Thus you have Mt 25:31ff – the sheep are vindicated, the goats are condemned. While the oppressed are comforted, those who oppressed them are punished and those who protected them are rewarded (there are 3 groups).

      As to what this judgement and condemnation will look like: probably not like we have been taught to believe. Judging from the OT it will look like the Exile; judging from Mt 24 it will look like AD70 in Jerusalem; judging from Romans 1 it will look like people experiencing the results of their sins in the present.

      My point is we’ve overemphasised the idea of God appliying external punishment outside of and detached from the victim/oppressor/consequences circumstances here and now. After this life the only punishment outstanding is that which was not atoned for in this life nor repented for in the next. A murderer who sat in prison for 20 years and died there does not need God to punish him as well.

  • atimetorend

    And in spite of myself, I find it rather uncomfortable.
    I read through the book with a pastor/friend who made a very similar statement. Like you, little of the facts related in the book were new to him, but it forced him to take the implications more seriously. I suggested that maybe it was because the authors he has read, even authors writing along some similar lines (eg. Enns’ I&I, K. Sparks, etc.), are not as outwardly critical of the concept of biblical inerrancy. Starks is much more open about doing away with the concept, probably because he is not writing from within an evangelical framework like those authors.

    I do think Stark’s approach makes more sense. I appreciate what Enns and Sparks are coming from, but it gets confusing to me when they seek to redefine inerrancy, or avoid confronting it directly.

    Looking fwd to your second installment.

  • I suspect I too would struggle with this chapter at this point in time in my spiritual walk, (but maybe at a future time I might take a look at it). I struggled merely with Polkinghorne when he hypothesized that “if elements both human and divine meet in Christ, the perseveration of the true humanity surely must mean that the historical person did not go around thinking of himself as God”(102) (pasted from a blog post b/c the book is back at the library).

  • Sure, the New Testament doesn’t say that Jesus “fully reveals the Father” in those precise words but I think the idea underlying that concept is certainly present in many places. E.g. “the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1.3), “he is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1.15) “[Jesus] is the image of God” (2 Cor 4.4) etc.

    • Sorry Kev, I didn’t mean to be pedantic, just that Jesus mission wasn’t explictly “God Unveiled” but “God Returns” though the two surely interplay. But assuming Jesus perfectly and fully reveals God we have the following dilemma which perhaps you’d care to comment on:
      1) Jesus loved and forgave his unrepentant enemies and taught his followers to
      2) YHWH apparently smote and violently destroyed and will destroy/torture His enemies
      So how, given this state of affairs does Jesus truly and fully reflect God? Are we seeing two sides of a personality?

      • Can’t speak for Kevin, but for me (as you may already know from reading this blog), if the Israelite understanding of Yahweh had been accurate, Jesus’ revelation of God’s character would not have been a revelation. It is precisely because the Israelites’ understanding was so errant that we needed Jesus to speak on God’s behalf and reveal His heart.

        • Interesting. But again I think to focus on Jesus as a or the revelation of God is to miss the primary point. Jews were not itching to “know God better” nor waiting for his Son. The point of Christ was not that we can all now “have a personal relationship” with God. Instead, Wright and others have shown, Israel was waiting for deliverance which is to say they were waiting for God to reveal his righteousness, specifically, His covenantal faithfulness (Wright again). That’s what Paul says the Gospel is (Rom 1:16-17) and the reason Christ came (Rom 15:8ff).

          This btw. is the likely meaning of 2 Cor 5:21 – Christ embodied (“became”) the covenantal faithfulness (“righteousness”) of God by fulfilling the promises to the Patriarchs in bringing blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3; 18:18). The Wright Perspective.

          • I’m not sure it matters what they were itching for. They were also itching
            to smash the Romans and take over the known world. Their idea of how God
            should show His “covenant faithfulness” was based in their understanding of
            God, which was in many significant ways defective.

          • Paul D.

            I think it matters because without knowing what the audience understood or expected, we can’t understand what the actual message of Paul or the Gospel writers was. All communication rely ones information already held in common between the two parties in order to be interpreted correctly, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Knowing what was in the recipients’ heads goes a long way in knowing what the heck the Bible is talking about sometimes.

          • Paul D.

            That should be “All communication relies on…”

          • Of course “it matters” in the sense that it’s something significant worth
            recovering, but knowing what they were expecting and hoping for doesn’t
            necessarily imply that that was in fact what they got.

        • I actually don’t think there’s as much discontinuity between Jesus and traditional Jewish ideas about God as people in this thread seem to suppose there is. Jesus believed in an interim dispensation of mercy, followed swiftly by a period of bloody judgment. In that sense, he is no different than any of the Hebrew prophets. The Qumran sect also espoused a policy of non-violence in the interim period before the final judgment. That doesn’t mean they believed God was non-violent, and I don’t think Jesus of Nazareth did either. We need to read the theme of suffering servanthood within the context of apocalypticism. The suffering fits within the interim period which is short, followed by a period of intense violence where God unleashes his wrath, and only then does peace come. Suffering doesn’t make peace in this paradigm; suffering tests and proves the righteous, who will then turn around and judge the wicked on the day of judgment.

          Jesus did not teach about an anti-hierarchical kingdom; he did not teach the renunciation of power—he taught a counterintuitive means for achieving power, and it had everything to do with the polarity of the ages, and the idea of imminent reversal. The weak would be made powerful and the powerful would be toppled.

          Loving enemies applies to the interim dispensation of mercy and divine patience. It does not extend to the judgment.

          Thus, I am not as concerned as Kevin about the implications of Jesus being wrong about the apocalyptic scenario undermining his “unique revelation” of God, because I do not think it was particularly unique. I would call it outstanding; I would call it mature. I wouldn’t necessarily call it unique.

          As I state in the book, I think there are elements of Jesus’ worldview we should appropriate positively and elements of his worldview we should appropriate critically, elements which reveal more about our own weaknesses as humans than they do about the divine.

          • I have thought long and hard about this, and I agree that many if not most or all of those aspects of Jesus’ teaching that are “mature” and which we should appropriate cannot be seen as brand new revelation. However, not just as a Christian, but in historical terms, I think it can be maintained that Jesus’ teachings (the good ones, anyway) as appropriated by the early Church and made manifest throughout history in varying degrees of efficacy have made him not the first, nor even necessarily the final, but the definitive, authoritative divine word on the subject. It is in that way that I tend to see him as “God’s Word”, as God’s clarion call to humanity.

  • If the subtitle of Stark’s book refers to what is revealed when the Bible gets God wrong, then there should be more discussion of what is revealed when the NT writers get Jesus wrong about his own view of the meaning of his own mission. I’m with Diglot.

    • John, that’s what I discuss in the final chapter of the book.

    • I’m looking forward to that part as well, John.

  • Anonymous

    Have you ever read Keith Ward’s ideas on this?

    • Hi Andre,
      Yes, but a while back before I was fully willing to budge on my eschatology.
      😉 Can you refresh me?

      • Anonymous

        I’m in the process of reading it in his book What the Bible Really Teaches. But briefly, what is proposes is the idea of “sublation”, that a greater truth encompasses the particulars of the prophecies of the second coming and judgment.

        I’ve been struggling with this myself. A thought that occurred to me is that apocalypse is always occurring, that nations rise and fall and our individual lives meet challenges, including death. I don’t know if I should take such liberties though.

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