Silver-Bullet Argument #26: Jesus Was Wrong About the End (2 of 2)

Silver-Bullet Argument #26: Jesus Was Wrong About the End (2 of 2) August 15, 2019

Jesus predicted the end of everything and said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34). Whoops—that didn’t happen. Jesus being wrong about this critical claim is a showstopper.

This is the conclusion of an analysis that began here.

Let’s turn to responses from Christian thinkers.

Maybe Jesus was limited by his human body?

Most Christians will tell you that Jesus had a human body but the mind of God. Can the Christian message be saved by arguing that Jesus was wrong about the end because he had a human mind?

No, this doesn’t salvage anything. Consider the options: Jesus could have a god mind (but then why would he make mistakes like this?), he could have a human mind (but then he would at best be a very good man, not divine), or his mind could be some combination (but where is the biblical support for Jesus’s mind being some fraction divine and perfect and the remainder human and imperfect?).

Perhaps they argue that Jesus was “truly God and truly man,” as defined in the Chalcedonian Creed. Apply that to his mind, and it’s 100% divine and 100% human. But now you’re back to explaining how a fully divine mind makes mistakes.

One Christian reaction

About “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened,” popular Christian apologist C. S. Lewis said, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

It gets worse. Just two verses later in Matthew we read, “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Lewis said about these two awkward statements, “The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.”

Of course, Lewis didn’t let this little problem overcome his faith. Many Christians hold onto their faith with the help of rules like these:

Rule #1: Jesus is God.

Rule #2: If Jesus appears to not be God, see Rule #1.

Let the tap dancing begin: 5 responses

Lewis found some way to shield his faith from uncomfortable facts, but he did admit that Jesus’s prediction was, at least with the most obvious interpretation, wrong. And that’s a common view among scholars who have responded to it. But of course they have rationalizations to keep it at arm’s length.

We’ve considered the “Jesus had a human brain” response. Let’s continue the list. The first few explanations are from the NET Bible (the “Constable’s Notes” commentary on Matthew 24).

1. “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The problem here is that “all these things” includes the sun and moon fading away and the stars falling to earth. No, the destruction of a single city isn’t that.

2. “This generation will not pass away” means “the generation living during the end times will not pass away.”

Huh? This is basically a tautology. The generation that’s alive during the end times will exist during the end times? That’s not helpful.

3. “This generation” means the Jewish people.

The NET Bible itself rejects this one (see note for Matthew 24:34). It’s simply not a plausible interpretation of the Greek.

4. When the woman with the bleeding illness touched Jesus, he demanded, “Who touched me?” (discussed in part 1). How could the omniscient second person of the Trinity not know? One source explains this by arguing that Jesus “possesses the power of intentional self-limitation.”

Yeah, I’d stand in line for that superpower.

But let’s suppose Jesus knew that he was deliberately clouding his knowledge of humanity’s future. First, why would he do that? What would that accomplish? And second, why would he make a prediction about something that he knew he had limited his understanding of?

5. “Prophecies are, by their nature, conditional. A prophesied outcome may or may not transpire; it all depends on how the audience responds to the message of the prophet” (Pete Enns, italics in original).

There are certainly some prophecies that are not conditional. Matthew claimed that Jesus’s birth was miraculous and the fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah. No apologist who accepts the virgin birth claim would say that the prophecy in Isaiah was of the “it might happen, but maybe not” variety.

But he does have a point. One example: Jonah was sent to Nineveh to warn the inhabitants that their city would soon be destroyed because of their wickedness (Jonah 3). The king immediately accepted God’s judgement and commanded his people to fast, pray, and abandon their evil ways, and God relented.

Another example is Jeremiah 18:5–10 where God gives himself the right to declare that a nation will be destroyed but then change his mind if they repent and to declare a nation is to be supported but then change his mind if they do evil.

The first problem is that we’re faced with an all-knowing God changing his mind. How is this possible? But set that aside, and let’s return to Jesus’s failed prophecy. The claim here is that if God’s prophecy can fail because God changed his mind, the same is true for Jesus.

This author is largely echoing the argument in 2 Peter 3:3–9, which admits that the second coming is late but that God is doing humanity a favor by delaying judgment so that more can be brought into the fold.

Yet again, this doesn’t explain how an omniscient being like Jesus gets it wrong. If that’s what Jesus meant, he could’ve said that. Omniscient beings don’t change their minds based on new information, because there can be no new information for them.

Also, more delay means more people going to hell. Jesus said that few would find the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13–14). No, God does humanity no favors by making more people who will burn to hell.


Robert M. Price observed that when there is a mountain of Christian commentary about a verse, that’s usually evidence that it’s quite clear. The commentary isn’t there because the verse is confusing but because it’s embarrassing. We see that in the NET Bible’s commentary on Matt. 24:34, “This is one of the hardest verses in the gospels to interpret.”

(More on Christians’ seeking refuge by labelling verses “difficult” here.)

In the Christian explanations given above, they start with Rule #1: Jesus is God. And if you start with that assumption, the rationalizations above are worth considering.

But if you don’t start there and just follow the evidence, the problem is neatly dismissed by concluding that the gospels are just legendary stories. This is a natural explanation that is overwhelmingly more plausible than conjuring up the supernatural.

Faith is a permission slip to let you believe
anything you want without having a good reason,
because as soon as you have a good reason,
there’s no more need of faith.
— Matt Dillahunty


Image from Retrogasm, CC license

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  • skl

    As I commented in part 1,
    it’s a wonder they didn’t leave Matthew 24:34 on
    the cutting room floor when they were putting the bible
    together hundreds of years – and obviously many generations – after the verse was supposedly spoken.
    I recall that at least one commenter hypothesized that some
    wheeled and dealed to insert, or keep in, the highly-problematic passage, and
    won. I might be interested in seeing the evidence for that, and
    particularly in what their motivations were.

    • Jim Jones

      This was from a gospel written in Greek, by Greeks, for Greeks, and 300+ years after the supposed events. It was motivated by immediate needs.

      • Rudy R

        That’s as plausible a hypothesis as any. If those Greeks found out that these myths were still believed today, they’d probably be shocked.

        • Jim Jones

          The willingness of humans to believe superstitious nonsense is disturbing.

        • BertB

          Indeed. I find it really saddening that so many good people that I know, close friends and family, intelligent people, can believe this stuff.

      • skl

        I’ve read that the gospel of Matthew was written for Jews,
        not Greeks.

        • Jim Jones

          Wishful thinking. Despite Matthew 15:24

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      So even if, supposedly, this ‘jesus’ said it, you’d prefer that it be left out because it’s just one more demonstration of the arrogance & delusion of the putative founder of the religion?

  • Jim Jones

    Jesus wasn’t as good a person as Fred Rogers.

    Mr Rogers had three rules:

    1. Be kind
    2. Be kind
    3. Be kind

    The world would be a better place if the Jeez had stated those, although he came close with Matthew 25:35-40.

  • Lex Lata

    “If that’s what Jesus meant, he could’ve said that.”

    This pretty encapsulates decades of my annoyance with textual apologetics–discerning the desired meaning by ignoring problematic words that are on the page and imputing helpful words that aren’t.

    • Pofarmer

      Or ignoring problematic passages altogether while quoting passages that bolster your position.

      • Greg G.

        Like browsing the salad bar.

  • ephemerol

    So C.S. Lewis had just as little regard for applying regula fidei/sola scriptura across the board as my church. Should I have been surprised?

    If ambiguity makes it hard to figure out the time frame when Jesus (and Paul) thought armageddon and the apocalypse would happen:

    1) look at the other places where they make it crystal *fᴜсkіnɡ* clear they were all thinking of the 1st century, and that they were all wrong
    2) ignore all those other bits, and instead stay focused on leveraging the ambiguity in that one particular verse to make it seem like there’s some wiggle room for Jesus to not to have not been wrong after all

    There’s only one way to successfully rescue the word of god from his own incompetence, and it isn’t the way Lewis is trying to do it. It’s the way Jefferson did it, with scissors.

  • With Fundagelicals basing everything on the Bible, and when not in PIDOOMAs, it’s easy to see why others moved beyond mere Biblical literalism. You fail, and you fail hard.

  • mordred

    Like quite a few young, progressive Christians I didn’t really have a problem with Jesus not being an omniscient god himself. Maybe he was a somewhat lesser celestial being, maybe he was limited by being incarnated, maybe he was just a wise prophet who was later declared a god by his followers. It was the message that was important!

    So you can ignore problematic parts of the bible. But if you have to accept that this part and that part are wrong, how do you know the parts you like aren’t also wrong? Did he really preach peace, or did he bring a sword? What exactly was the message then?

    In the end, realizing how central the coming end times were for both Jesus and Paul (and how little useful advice for my everyday life and the world’s problems were to be found in the NT as a consequence), this central prophecy being so completely wrong was one of the main reasons for me to discard the whole of the bible.

    • That’s the fun! You get to decide for yourself which passages to emphasize and which to override.

      It’s a game where you get to play God.

  • Rudy R

    Like father, like son. His father exhibited no proof of being an omni-god, so we shouldn’t set the bar higher for his son. It was a lot of pressure for the son to successfully implement the father’s final solution to fix all his father’s screw-ups, so we shouldn’t hold it against him with that epic prophecy failure.

  • Michael Newsham

    Ah, the Argument from Embarrassment, which goes:
    1)The Bible is so full of errors, contradictions. and false statements of fact that it is embarrassing.
    2) If it had been put together by the hands of men, they would have edited out all the mistake, contradicting statements, and falsehoods.
    3)The Bible is however, full of errors, contradictions, and false statements.
    4)This is evidence that it was written/inspired by a perfect God, and not by fallible man.

    Checkmate, skeptics!

    • mordred

      That textbook I recently read must have been of divine origin then…

      • NS Alito

        Didst thou dare open the book of physical chemistry?

        • mordred

          Nothing so interesting, just some programming book that went through several editions and mixed different versions of tools and libraries and contained some code examples that just didn’t work.

          Really reminded me of the bible somehow…

        • NS Alito

          Damn. Some kid is going to try to learn from it and not realize it’s not his fault.

        • mordred

          And that’s just one of the many problems with the bible…

        • epeeist

          Didst thou dare open the book of physical chemistry?

          This book on Physical Chemistry?

          Wonder whether it is the set book on the subject at Liberty or Oral Roberts “universities”?

        • NS Alito

          By the reviews it looks better than the textbook I used back in the Pleistocene.

        • epeeist

          I was fortunate enough to be taught Feynman diagrams by Peter Atkins.

          You do recognise the name?

        • NS Alito

          No. Unlike, say, signal processing or differential equations, there’s a veil over the part of my brain dealing with physical chemistry.

        • epeeist

          Peter Atkins.

          On another comment I have mentioned Swinburne’s claim that the Holocaust allowed the Jews to show courage and nobility.Atkins was at the dinner and was heard to say “May you rot in hell”.

    • Rudy R

      So the blame is put on Yahweh?

    • Michael Murray

      So taht maeks me a God’s.

    • Michael Murray

      Whereas I’ve heard people say that the Koran is a work of such transcendent beauty that it must have been written by a divine being. Of course they mean the Arabic version which I can’t read. Double check mate.

  • Anri

    God said it,
    I believe it*,
    and that settles it!

    *May be subject to terms and conditions. Offer not valid for all states of mind. Argument not for use on the face, body, or near any mucus membranes, bodily openings or other living tissue. All ingredients naturally grown in laboratory setting. May be processed in a facility that also processes nuts, loons, cooks, and other forms of ground or tree dwelling life. Laws and restrictions apply in AX, VQ, RR, and certain gears of VW. Help I am trapped in a factory for legal boilerplate and cannot get out. These statements are not intended as religious advice and may in fact be inspired by the devil. Not intended as protective headgear or footwear. The choice of a deity is a very important one and should not be decided by advertising or scripture. Why are you still reading this. Do not get wet or feed after midnight. Coverage of the apocalypse will be time delayed on the east coast by approximately 2 (two) (zwei) (II) hours or a fortnight, whichever is funnier. Do not ingest except when eating. If you have a godrection lasting more than four hours, seek medical attention at once as the doctor needs a good laugh. Thank you again for you support.

    • Greg G.

      More often, it’s:
      I said it,
      God believes it,
      That settles it!

    • BertB

      Priceless. Well done.

    • Good for all debts, public and private. An effective decay preventative dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    The first problem is that we’re faced with an all-knowing God changing his mind. How is this possible?

    And sometimes we are even told that God is “outside of time” or even “outside of time and space”. What would it even mean for such a being to change His mind?

    • Rudy R

      Such a god would have to enter space and time to change his mind.

      • Greg G.

        How could a god thingy that is outside of space and time decide to enter space and time?

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          Shhhhhhh…… No reason to think too hard about this. Just let god take care of reconciling that stuff…..

        • Greg G.

          I hired a guy to worry about my troubles. He’s so expensive that I can’t afford him but that’s his worry.

        • Ignorant Amos

          I’d be worried about that, if a was a worrier that is of course.

        • NS Alito

          He used an in-circuit emulator?

        • carbonUnit

          He used an in-circuit emulator?
          Which resonates with the theory that the universe is just a big simulation. We are the creations of a Far Side-ish freckly kid with glasses, working on his artificial realms assignment.

        • Rudy R

          Precisely! You would need space and time to make a decision.

        • Pofarmer

          It’s God. Duh.

    • RichardSRussell

      Probably got his mind from Amazon. I understand they have an excellent return policy.

    • JustAnotherAtheist2

      Being omniscient is a pretty big stumbling block for changing one’s mind as well.

      • I Came To Bring The Paine

        That’s the problem when theologians imagined an immutable god. A god who cannot be moved cannot move.

      • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

        Also being atemporal. Change only exists in the context of time.

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          Yeah it’s funny that god supposedly exists outside of time (whatever that means) yet every description of him is dependent on time’s passage.

          Theists often respond that it’s a limitation of language – that it’s simply beyond our ability to adequately convey. But if I grant god’s self-contradictory description can be reconciled by a thought process beyond my own, what’s to stop me from accepting other self-contradictory things for the same reason?

        • I know of Fundies who love to claim that without caring for what it entails, especially that such a reality-breaking entity would be as alien and eldritch, if not more, than the one that could bring into existence an Universe as rich and vast as this one, not to mention something as arcane as quantum mechanics.

          Of course both are way beyond especially the OT one.

    • Pofarmer

      We are told that God is the “ground of all being” and yet also that we are created in his image. How does that work?

      • Greg G.

        From ground ye came and to ground ye shall return.

      • I Came To Bring The Paine

        Simple, the god they’re talking about is the ‘god of the philosophers’ and not the god of Judaism/Christianity. Replace the words ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ in the Bible with ‘ground of all being’ and you’ll see how silly the whole charade is.

        • Susan

          you’ll see how silly the whole charade is

          It really is a charade. And a frustrating one, at that.

          They make claims about one that doesn’t support the other, and vice versa.

          But that’s christian apologetics.

        • I Came To Bring The Paine

          Yes. Christian apologetics is indeed a charade.

        • Ignorant Amos

          The WAM argument.

          A game of religious apologetics knocking like Whack-a-Mole.

          As P.Z. Meyers puts it in reply to a Christer that complained about atheists refuting Christer strawmen….

          We atheists actually do address the claims fervently held by millions of [Christian] people. The sneaky trick the theological wankers pull, though, is that once we’ve smacked them down, they announce, “Oh, no — we didn’t mean those millions of believers. They’re stupid. We meant these other millions of believers.” It’s a big game of whack-a-mole. What you call “obscure Old Testament laws,” someone else will call the core of their faith. What you value as the “Christological narrative,” a member of yet another sect will call pretentious confabulations.

          Atheists just cut through all the noise and call it all sewage.

      • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

        Convenience of description.

        I’m guessing they’d describe us as the shadows in Plato’s cave in explaining this?

        • Pofarmer

          I’ve never actually had anyone attempt to explain it. They generally leave.

  • Doubting Thomas

    One source explains this by arguing that Jesus “possesses the power of intentional self-limitation.”

    Yeah, I’d stand in line for that superpower.

    Why stand in a line when you could sit at a bar?

    • richardrichard2013

      “intentional self limitation” ? what does that mean ? the “divine person” allows ignorance to control him?

      • Greg G.

        Wow! That’s a good point. What if Jesus healed the Anti-Christ by mistake due to intentional self-limitation? What if Jesus destroyed the whole world when he was a child the way he killed another child who bumped into him in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?

  • eric

    Lewis found some way to shield his faith from uncomfortable facts

    Lewis shielded his faith by entertaining extremely liberal Christian theology, so liberal that probably all the evangelicals and fundamentalists who are so fond of quoting him today would have reviled him as not a true Christian.

    Probably the best example of this is his book The Great Divorce, in which he promotes the idea that salvation doesn’t need to be gained in our lifetime (but can be granted after death), and that even atheists can eventually make it to heaven, while some true-believing Christians won’t. In this vision of Christianity, every soul gets an “informed choice” about whether to reside in heaven and hell; hell is not infinite torture but rather kind of a slum; and the choice one has to make to get into heaven is to sincerely desire/try and give up evil behavior. You don’t even have to succeed at it, initially, you just have to commit to trying.

    Soooo…Lewis’ vision of salvation is much more fair than standard Christian theology. But it’s also not consistent with what most Christians believe.

    • Lewis also believed that the gates of hell were barred from the inside. I don’t know how he squares that with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Lewis shielded his faith by entertaining extremely liberal Christian theology, so liberal that probably all the evangelicals and fundamentalists who are so fond of quoting him today would have reviled him as not a true Christian.

      And Roman Catholics too. They lap him up.

  • MadScientist1023

    I’m kinda surprised Christians don’t take the Catch-22 approach to that problem. If all good Christians get eternal life in heaven, one could argue that the people Jesus was talking to never passed away because they are still alive in heaven. If you use that logic, the Earth can stick around until it’s swallowed by the sun before the second coming occurs and it would still be true.

  • There’s also the possibility that Jesus was lying.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Or the guys who were writing about Jesus, were writing fiction.

      It’s hard to accuse Arthur Conan Doyle of lying about Dr. Watson, lying about what Sherlock Holmes was saying, was lies. It was all fiction fits better.