Thom Stark’s book The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong is an attack on the doctrine of inerrancy—or perhaps better, an attempt to reframe the problem of biblical errancy. In chapter 8, which is the only chapter I’ve read so far, he argues that Jesus proclaimed that “the world as we know it” would end within a generation. He comes to the “paradoxical conclusion” that if the Gospels are right, then Jesus was wrong. “In the inerrantist universe, this is surely a paradox of cosmic proportions.”
After some introductory remarks about the relation of Jesus to Jewish apocalyptic thought, Stark looks closely at two passages in which he thinks that Jesus predicts the end of the world—the wholesale overhaul of the created order if not quite the end of the time-space continuum—within the lifetime of his disciples. The first is the teaching in the region of Caesarea Philippi about the cost of following him, the second is the apocalyptic discourse in Jerusalem.
I think Stark gets it half right. Yes, Jesus expected people to see the coming of the Son of Man within the lifetime of some of his disciples. No, this was not going to be a final judgment.
The Son of Man will come before some of those standing here taste death
Stark reads the words about the Son of Man coming while some of his disciples are still alive (Matt. 16:28; Mk. 9:1; Lk. 9:27) as a statement about the “last judgment.” In Jewish apocalyptic thought the common expectation is that faithful Israel will “experience an intense period of suffering” before the end of the age. Mark says that those who do not persevere through these birth pains will be judged and will lose their lives (Mk. 8:35-36). Matthew’s version makes the reference to a final judgment “clear and unequivocal”: the Son of Man will “repay everyone for what has been done” (Matt. 16:27).
Stark is right to dismiss face-saving attempts to interpret the “some will not taste death” saying as a reference to Jesus’ mighty works, the transfiguration, the resurrection, or the day of Pentecost. I disagree, however, that Jesus is speaking of a final judgment here.
First, it is only Jesus’ disciples who will be subjected to shame or repaid when the Son of Man comes with his angels. There is no mention of the rest of Israel, let alone of humanity generally. Stark has been misled by the NRSV, which translates “he will repay everyone for what he has done.” Jesus says, “he will repay each (ekastōi) according to his action,” and in context this can only refer to those who choose to take up their own cross and follow him. The saying anticipates the parables of the return of an absent master or bridegroom, which Jesus will attach to the parousia vision (Matt. 24:45-25:30). The judgment, in other words, is very narrowly conceived.
Secondly, I fail to see how the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of the Father with his angels refers in any “clear and unequivocal” fashion to a final judgment. The presence of “glory” and “angels” does not necessarily make this a final event, but we need to look at the later passage to see what Jesus was really getting at.
The Olivet discourse
The second prediction of a final judgment is found at the end of the lengthy prophetic teaching given on the Mount of Olives. Stark puts forward his own argument, addresses some common objections, and then looks in some detail at N.T. Wright’s “novel interpretation” of the passage.
The main narrative, Stark argues, describes events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome in AD 70. Palestine descends into chaos, false prophets and messiahs promise liberation, a nation rises up against a nation, the gospel is proclaimed throughout the known world, the faithful must endure suffering, a “desolating sacrilege” is placed in the temple, the faithful flee to the mountains just Mattathias and his sons fled to the mountains at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault on Judaism, and Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles.
That is all largely unobjectionable. I also agree with Stark that the saying about the ignorance of the Son cannot be used to accommodate an indefinite delay in the fulfilment of the events described.
He argues further, however, that Jesus predicts the destruction of Rome as part of a final judgment following on from the fall of Jerusalem. After the tribulation that climaxes in the destruction of Jerusalem sun, moon, and stars are darkened, and the powers in the heavens are shaken (Mk. 13:24). This is taken to be an allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment on Babylon:
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. (Is. 13:9–10).
Similar language is found in Joel 2:30-32 and Ezekiel 32:5-8, and on the basis of these parallels Stark draws the conclusion for Jesus’ own vision: “Israel is attacked by a foreign power, but Yahweh intervenes and destroys the foreign army, just in time to save the remnant of the faithful”—those who fled to the hills earlier.
Thus, when Jesus says that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” what Jesus means is dreadfully clear: Rome’s time is up.
So Jesus was right about everything except the “little detail about the end of the world as we know it.
This is a compelling thesis in many ways. Judgment against Israel followed by judgment against the instrument of that judgment is certainly the Old Testament pattern:
Woe to him who makes his neighbours drink…! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’S right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! (Hab. 2:15–16)
When YHWH restores the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, he will bring the nations to the Valley of Jehoshaphat and “enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:1-2). The Lord will gather the nations to ravage Jerusalem, but then he will “go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle,” and the survivors form the nations will come each year to Jerusalem to “worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 14:1-3, 16).
Stark’s reading also fits Daniel’s vision rather well. The “one like a son of man” is seen coming with the clouds of heaven after the fourth beast has been judged and consumed in the fire that flows from the throne of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9-14). The destruction of Jerusalem does not even feature in this vision.
The darkening of the heavens
The problem is that Jesus says nothing about a battle against the armies of Rome directly after the destruction of Jerusalem. He says nothing about a transformation of the world as they knew it. The interpretation hangs pretty much entirely on the meaning we attach to the darkening of the skies over Jerusalem.
Stark has not read the Old Testament texts carefully enough. The imagery of unnatural darkness in Isaiah 13:10 attends judgment against the city and land of Babylon. The Medes will come, the land will be devastated, the people will be slaughtered, and the city will be left in ruins. This does not fit Stark’s scenario, which requires a defeat of the Roman armies in Palestine.
The same imagery in Joel 2:30 is applied not to the hostile nations but to Jerusalem, and the reference to “fire and columns of smoke” rather suggests that, at one level, it is the burning of the city that causes the darkness. Those who call on the name of the Lord at this time will be saved, and subsequently YHWH will enter into judgment with the nations in the valley outside the city. But the “wonders in the heavens and on the earth” pertain to the judgment of Jerusalem, not to the defeat of the nations.
So two related but distinct outcomes are in view in Jewish and Jewish-Christian apocalyptic, which Stark tends to confuse—as he does in his comment on Acts 1:6-8, for example: “Overthrowing Rome and restoring the kingdom to Israel is exactly what he said he would do in the Olivet Discourse.”
First, there is the prospect that God will restore Judah and Jerusalem, first by eradicating wickedness from his own people, then by defeating the hostile nations that have been gathered against Jerusalem. This is also the story in Zechariah 14, which Stark discusses at some length in his attempt to show that Jesus was looking beyond the destruction of Jerusalem:
In both Zechariah 14 and Mark 13, Yahweh punishes Jerusalem with foreign armies, before immediately turning around and punishing the Gentiles that were used to punish Jerusalem. In both oracles, after the judgment of the nations, a new age of unfathomable glory ensues. In neither case were the oracles fulfilled.
That Zechariah has in mind a dramatically transformed world of “unfathomable glory” is a bit of an overstatement. Idolatry will be eradicated from the land Jerusalem will be established as a place of worship for the surrounding nations (Zech. 13:2; 14:16). But any nations in the region—notably Egypt—that do not go up to Jerusalem will suffer drought and plague. Sin and death remain a part of this new political-religious order.
Secondly, there is the larger prospect that the distant centre of empire—in this case Rome—will be judged and overthrown and replaced by the glorious New Jerusalem.
Jesus was realistic enough to know that a local victory over the armies that had gathered against Jerusalem would not mean that Rome’s time was up. In the New Testament this prospect only arises in the course of the apostolic mission to the nations, as Gentiles begin to abandon their idols to serve the living God and wait for his Son from heaven to deliver them from the wrath yet to come on the pagan oikoumenē (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10).
When Peter takes up the Joel passage in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, it is exclusively with reference to the prospect of judgment against Jerusalem and “this crooked generation” of Israel (Acts 2:14-41). When the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and the sun is turned to darkness and the moon to blood, those in Jerusalem who call on the name the Lord will be saved. Judgment on Rome is not remotely within the purview of the preaching of the early church.
So the point to grasp is that in the Old Testament prophetic visions the sky is darkened over the city that is being judged, not subsequently over the armies that have come against the city. In the context of Jesus’ Olivet discourse the language can only apply to Jerusalem; nothing is said to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem will be followed by the defeat of the armies of Rome. Instead, what is emphasised is a shake-up in the heavenly realm in advance of the appearance of (the sign of) the Son of Man (Matt. 24:29-30; Mk. 13:24-26; Lk. 21:25-27).
The coming of the Son of Man
Stark takes “Son of Man” to be a “true messianic warrior,” who presumably will fight against Rome. We certainly have something like this in Revelation. Jesus is the rider on a white horse, whose name is the Word of God, who will strike down the nations, rule them with a rod of iron, tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God, and defeat the beast of idolatrous Roman power (Rev. 19:11-21). But no reference is made here to the Son of Man. The Son of Man is never a militant figure.
Daniel’s figure in human form is not, in fact, a warrior but a victim: he represents the faithful people of the saints of the Most High, against whom Antiochus Epiphanes made war (Dan. 7:25-27). It is the Ancient of Days who destroys the fourth beast of Greek imperial power; then the one like a son of man only receives dominion, glory, and a kingdom.
The direction of the coming of the Son of Man is probably not important. Jesus means only to evoke Daniel’s vision as a statement about the vindication and empowerment of righteous persecuted Israel. The emphasis is not on the movement but on the seeing. In effect, the leadership of Israel will see a reproduction of what Daniel saw and should draw the conclusion that in the course of these traumatic events authority has been transferred from the old régime, the wicked tenants of the vineyard, to a new people represented by the Son of Man.
In his critique of Wright, Stark argues that the coming of the Son of Man cannot be seen as a direct implication of the destruction of the temple. He gives three reasons.
- There is nothing in the Olivet discourse to indicate that the suffering in Jerusalem “is to be seen as vindication for Jesus of Nazareth.”
- Both Matthew and Mark make it very clear that the coming of the Son of Man happens after the destruction of Jerusalem.
- The coming of the Son of Man is not confined to Jerusalem but is “global in scope”: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” (Matt. 24:30), and the judgment of the Son of Man will come like a trap “upon all who dwell on the face of the earth” (Lk. 21:35).
I don’t think the argument holds up.
- The emphasis on false prophets and messiahs in the discourse, promising deliverance from destruction, sets us up for the vindication of the true messiah by the actual turn of events. The preaching of the good news about the impending kingdom of God to Israel and the nations naturally requires the vindication of the person who sent out the messengers.
- The argument that the destruction of the temple was the “impetus” for the coming of the Son of Man is unconvincing. The darkening of the sky over Jerusalem comes “after that tribulation” but not after the actual destruction of the city, which is not explicitly described in the discourse. The celestial chaos is a sign that the predicted events will lead to a new political-religious order, which will begin with the recognition that Jesus and his disciples were right all along.
- It is not certain that Matthew’s “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” constitutes the sort of “worldwide mourning” that in Stark’s view would be indicative of a “final judgment.” Arguably, this is a reference, as in Zechariah 12:12, to the tribes of the land, who mourn over “him whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10; cf. Rev. 1:7). It is important to keep in mind that this vision is principally the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to the high priest and the Council when they condemn him: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62).
Is this a metaphor I see before me?
Stark seems inclined to disagree with Wright that the language of darkened skies, coming on the clouds, sending out of angels, blowing of trumpets, etc., would have been understood metaphorically in the ancient world. He doesn’t go into details but cites Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth and Adams’ Stars Will Fall from Heaven, neither of which I have.
So I will make the point bluntly that there is no difficulty with the assumption that that the Old Testament prophets used such language metaphorically. Isaiah imagined the stars, sun, and moon being darkened when Babylon is punished, but the event remains part of normal history: the city becomes like Sodom and Gomorrah, and wild creatures inhabit its ruins (Is. 13:19-22). When God judges Israel’s neighbours, all “the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll,” but Edom simply becomes a wasteland, a haunt of jackals and ostriches (Is. 34:4, 8-15).
There’s no reason why Jesus should have taken the coming of one like a son of man with the clouds of heaven any more literally than Daniel did: it is a visionary and symbolic event on the same level as the emergence of the beasts from the sea and the setting up of thrones on the earth.
And did Zechariah literally believe that YHWH would fire an arrow, “sound the trumpet,” and “march forth in the whirlwinds of the south in order to deliver his people from their aggressors (Zech. 9:14)?
Jesus tells his disciples that when they see all these things happening, they will “know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matt. 24:33; Mk. 13:29). Stark understands this to mean that Jesus would literally return to Jerusalem to “deliver his people from the hand of the enemy.” In Luke’s version, however, it is the kingdom of God that is near (Lk. 21:31), and it’s quite possible to read Matthew and Mark in a similar way: not the Son of Man but the climactic moment of God’s judgment is near, at the gates. The purpose of the Son of Man’s coming, by contrast, is to gather and assess the envoys whom he sent out into the world to proclaim this future for Israel: he dispatches angels to gather them back, he judges the ten virgins, he repays the servants.
Finally, and curiously, Stark does not mention the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46, in which the Son of Man comes in glory with the angels to judge all the nations. Significantly, this is not framed as a comprehensive judgment, whether of Rome or of all humanity. It is presented quite narrowly as a judgment of the nations on the basis of how they responded to the presence of the “elect” envoys of the Son of Man. It is an aspect of the vindication of those who took up their crosses to follow him. It does not interrupt the flow of history.
In the closing chapter Stark asks what should be done with the “morally and theologically problematic texts” that he has been examining in this book. His answer is that they must be “retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts. Their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value. That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God” (italics removed). That is honest and worth considering in general terms, but I think that his reading of Jesus’ predictions about the future is flawed; and we are advised, at least, to make sure that we have given the texts a fair hearing before we condemn them. It is not easy to make sense of history.