This link is to an article by Kyle Dillon for the Gospel Coalition an organization of conservative preachers with media ministries like D. A. Carson, John Piper and Kevin DeYoung. I am not that conservative, so I was surprised that I agreed with most of the article Refuting 5 False Theories About Jesus.
It is an important topic. When Christians call upon the name of Jesus, are we talking about the same Jesus? Questions about the historical Jesus abound. Debates about the theological concerns relating to Jesus’ person and work have a lot to do with divisions among Christians.
The four false theories that I also think are false are these:
1. Jesus as a Pagan Myth.
2. Jesus as a Moral Philosopher
3. Jesus as a Violent Revolutionary
4. Jesus as an Ahistorical Existentialist
And I agree with Dillon’s positive statements about who Jesus was. He was comprehensible within a first-century Jewish context. He was crucifiable–he had to have torqued somebody off enough for them to want to kill him and this had to include the Roman authorities. He was consequential enough that many people still want to follow him and even worship him.
However, he includes among the false theories the idea that Jesus was a failed prophet. Stated that way, of course, it sounds obviously unorthodox and wrong–very close to saying Jesus was a false prophet. But the view he is criticizing is that of Albert Schweitzer, C. K. Barrett and many others who did not state it quite that way. So his criticism strikes me as unfair.
This is how Dillon characterizes this view:
This theory, more popular among critical scholars, is based on a certain reading of some of Jesus’s apocalyptic prophecies (e.g., Matt. 16:28; 24:34) in which Jesus predicts God’s kingdom will arrive, accompanied by cataclysmic celestial signs, within the lifetime of his disciples. They argue that since the world did not end within the lifetime of his disciples, he must’ve been deluded and the whole Christian religion based on a mistake.
My problem is calling this a mistake. The human Jesus admitted that he did not know about these things (Mark 13:32). He made a distinction between what “the Son of Man” knew and what the Father knew. It is a theological mistake to not take seriously the idea that in the Incarnation the Son emptied himself (Philippians 2:7) and thus accepted limitations that do not apply to the fullness of God. The question is not whether the human Jesus was mistaken but whether God was mistaken. It is perfectly orthodox, I would think, to accept the ambiguity of statements by Jesus about a matter of timing that he admitted he did not know about, and still to claim that he was not a failure or mistaken.
In the second or third century, Tertullian ascribed the delay of the Second Coming to the prayers of the Church. The Church knew it needed much more time to fulfill its mission. So it was included in the liturgy to pray that “the end be not yet.” So what some might see as a mistake or a failure, some of us might see as an answer to prayer.
For me the perspective of Schweitzer and others who see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet remains valid. Much of what he predicted came true with the Roman War and the 70 CE doom of Jerusalem. Other parts of what he predicted did not happen. But is that because he was fundamentally mistaken or because God in his mercy delays? It is the rejection of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet that has made some seek out the false theories.