Coming on the Clouds of Heaven:
A Reply to Shabir Ally’s
Execrable Blasphemies and Calumnies
Against the Son of Man
Now, since you join the Jews in denying that their Christ has come, recollect also what is that end which they were predicted as about to bring on themselves after the time of Christ, for the impiety wherewith they both rejected and slew Him. – Tertullian
In an attempt to prove Christ's words false, some say that much of the ancient city of Jerusalem remained standing. But this is not so. – Theophylact
Thou smotest thy Lord: thou also hast been smitten upon the earth. And thou indeed liest dead; but He is risen from the place of the dead, and ascended to the height of heaven. – Melito
And all this befell them, because the blood of Jesus was shed at their instigation and on their land; and the land was no longer able to bear those who were guilty of so fearful a crime against Jesus. – Origen
If any one compares the words of our Saviour with the other accounts of the historian (Josephus) concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Saviour were truly divine and marvelously strange. – Eusebius
Such warnings [of the destruction of Jerusalem/Israel] have been given in different Books of the Bible. As regards their [the Jews] first mischief and its evil consequences [i.e. the destruction of the first temple, the deportation to Babylon, etc.], the Israelites were warned in the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the warnings about their [the Jews] second mischief and its severe punishments [the coming destruction of Jerusalem/Israel in A.D. 70] are found in Matthew and Luke. – Maududi
A recent debate between James White and Shabir Ally saw the repeat of a claim that Ally made in one of their earlier debates. According to Ally then (*,*) and now (*,*,*): the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels is a false prophet since he predicted that the world would end in the lifetime of His followers, as witness the Olivet Discourse found in Mark 13, Luke 21, Matthew 24, as well as a number of other passages. Claims to this effect begin as early as the 34 minutes, 20 second mark of the second debate. Without suggesting that he would necessarily agree with everything stated herein, the response that White briefly gave in his most recent debate with Ally, namely that Christ was predicting the Jewish war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, will be defended at some length in what follows.
A Litany of Ironies
Perhaps the greatest irony in Ally’s argument is the fact that Jesus’ prediction, far from justifying Ally’s scandalous accusation, is the signal proof that Jesus is in fact the resurrected and ascended Lord, the Divine Son of Man prophesied by the prophet Daniel. Apparently Ally does not know that his errant conclusion is the result of combining what many Christians have long since known, i.e. that Jesus predicted the coming of the Kingdom with power in the first century, an event that would be so monumental that it would vindicate His claim to be the Son of Man and would effectively reorient the worship of God from the Temple in Jerusalem to Himself as the true Temple and final sacrifice for sin, together with the pop-eschatology of many end-times sensationalists that does not represent the view of all Christians, namely that Jesus in this passage was predicting the end of the world. When the Biblical teaching that Christ would establish His kingdom in the first century, a fact that liberal scholars appear to believe first dawned on them, is joined with the non-biblical idea that Jesus was talking about the end of the world rather than the end of the Old Covenant age and the sacrificial system, the inevitable conclusion is that Jesus was wrong.
This argument of course is not original to Ally, as few of his arguments are, but is one that he picked up like crumbs off a table from the likes of liberal theologian Albert Schweitzer (q.v. The Quest for the Historical Jesus), atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (q.v. Why I Am Not a Christian), Jewish historian Norman Cohn (q.v. Cosmos, Chaos and the World To Come), and apostate New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium).
To their credit, the above men took or take seriously the “time-texts” and temporal indicators attached to Christ’s prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives and related passages, a view that has a long and distinguished history among orthodox Christians, both past and present. Where this assortment of liberals, atheists and apostates went or go wrong, and where Ally is more than happy to follow them – a textbook case of the blind leading the blind – is in their interpretation that Christ was predicting the end of the world and in their willingness to brand Jesus as a false prophet.
Speaking to this, theologian R. C. Sproul wrote:
“Jesus of Nazareth was a false prophet!” This sentiment expresses a view of Christ that goes beyond the borders of slander to flirt with the supreme form of blasphemy from which there is no recovery. It peers into the abyss inhabited by legions of the damned.
Many who shrink from affirming the full deity of Christ hedge their bets by applying the honorific “Prophet” to his name. Few are bold enough in their unbelief to hurl against him the scurrilous epithet “false prophet.” In Israel the term false prophet signaled a warrant for death by stoning. The false prophet was a scourge to the community precisely because he was guilty of mixing dross with the gold of God’s truth, substituting the counterfeit for the genuine, the lie for the truth, and misleading the people of God, sometimes fatally.
The false prophet in Israel was detected by his making future predictions that failed to come to pass. This was the acid test to expose the dreamer who claimed the authority of the divine oracle to sanction erroneous pronouncements. God was enlisted as an ally for disinformation, indeed, claimed as the source or fountain of the poisonous lie. To preface one’s declaration with the claim “Thus saith the Lord” was to claim divine inspiration for a mere human opinion, to grasp for infallibility that is not the province of uninspired men.
The charge of false prophecy against Jesus is not made lightly by sober men. The consequences of such calumny are too severe. It takes a brash or supremely confident critic to risk this type of judgment. (R. C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), p. 11-12)
Accordingly, Ally’s willingness to heap such an aspersion on the Lord Jesus Christ necessarily means that he is either a brazen blasphemer or that he has good reason to be supremely confident not only that Jesus expected the events He prophesied to come to pass in the not too distant future, which I freely grant, but that the prophesied events related not to the destruction of Israel but to the end of the world, something I am supremely confident is not the case in these contexts.
Of course Ally would (and did) claim that he is not saying that the “historical Jesus” actually made false predictions; rather, he would (and did) say it was the evangelists who put these words in Christ’s mouth. The problem with this maneuver is that the assumptions of higher critics upon whom Ally relies for this argument lead straightway to the conclusion that these predictions go right back to the historical Jesus.
A second irony arises from the fact that other liberals, those who might at first seem to supply a scholarly out for Ally, such as the members of the Jesus Seminar, in a stark reversal of the position earlier held by Schweitzer, do hold that the Synoptists put the predictions of a soon coming judgment back into the mouth of Jesus. Unfortunately for Ally, the reason such scholars deny that these words were spoken by the historical Jesus is not because this is what the evidence demonstrates but because they recognize it would mean that the Jesus of history accurately predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, something that completely undermines their naturalistic assumptions.
The members of the Jesus Seminar are committed to a strict philosophical naturalism. [According to the Jesus Seminar – AR] Modern science and experience demonstrate that supernatural phenomena do not exist. Therefore, any record of supernatural events in the Gospels must be rejected as inauthentic. Recorded supernatural events are either mythic fictions created by the early church, or else they can now be accounted for by naturalistic explanations. This includes miraculous activity of healings, exorcisms, resurrection, prophecy, and inspiration of the biblical documents. Not only does philosophical naturalism automatically exclude large portions of the Gospel material, but it also has significant implications for related issues.
Take prophecy—predictions of the future found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels—as an example. The Jesus Seminar suggests that any statements in the Gospels that reflect knowledge of events that occurred after Jesus (especially the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, the Gentile and worldwide missionary outreach, and the persecution of the apostles) could not possibly have originated with Jesus or with eyewitnesses. Whenever they detect “detailed knowledge of postmortem events in sayings and parables attributed to Jesus, they are inclined to the view that the formulation of such sayings took place after the fact.”11 Hence, they deny the possibility of Jesus’ predicting the future. This leads to the conclusion that all the Gospels are late (at the least, post-A.D. 70, after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem). This removes the Gospels from the possibility of having eyewitnesses as authors; and if none of the evangelists was an eyewitness, then the evangelists were not apostles. This in turn denies the reliability of the early Father’s testimony concerning apostolic authorship, dating, or destination of the Gospels.
The exclusion of supernatural elements from the record of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and ministry begs the question. Such elements need to be examined for authenticity, not excluded simply on the basis of one’s worldview. (Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, General Editors, Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 4-5) (Emphasis mine)
11. Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, 25.
Aside from the fault-ridden presupposition of naturalism that drove the Seminar’s denial that Jesus spoke words that portended Jerusalem’s destruction, the whole idea is wildly out of step with the actual historical flow of events:
… after ignoring Jesus’ Jewish roots, the Seminar would have us believe that later Christians re-Judaized him. That is to say, Jesus was originally just a noteworthy teacher of wisdom, a “laconic sage” whose closest counterparts were to be found in the itinerant Cynics of the Greco-Roman world—wandering rebels notorious for flouting the conventions of society, living simply or even in poverty and calling others to join them in radical freedom from the world. But a generation later, the wisdom traditions of the Gospels were overlaid with apocalyptic traditions—teachings attributed to Jesus about the destruction of the temple, the end of the world, and God’s judgment. This hypothesis, however, inverts the actual sequence of the development of early Christianity, which spread from the Jewish world to the Greco-Roman world. The older liberal consensus that the New Testament successively transformed Jesus from an apocalyptic Jewish preacher, who thought God would soon intervene to bring about the end of the world, into a Hellenistic divine man or god had its problems too, but at least it meshed with the direction of the spread of the gospel—from Jerusalem to Greece and Rome. This newer view would make sense only if Jesus had lived and taught somewhere outside of Palestine, and then left the second generation of Christianity to take his message to the Jewish world. (Wilkins and Moreland, ibid., p. 22) (Emphasis mine)
In neither case, then, does Ally’s overall argument receive scholarly backing; the liberal theories on offer – note well: the so-called consensus of liberal scholars in one period is not that of the next – certainly do not provide any kind of footing that would be consistent with Ally’s own most basic assumptions as a Muslim. That the Jesus of history said these things and was proven to be a false prophet (ala Schweitzer, Russel, et al), or that the Jesus of history didn’t really say these things because He was a proto-naturalist (ala Funk, Crossan, et al), are just as much false for Ally as they are for Christians. In spite of what Ally claimed as justification for his method in his latest debate with White, i.e. that faith is not allowed to trump facts and that faith takes over where reason leaves off, all of this shows that Ally really presupposes his own view through and through and merely treats reason, facts and scholarship as if they were taxi-cabs that he can enter and exit whenever they happen or do not happen to be going his way.
Christian readers should take due note of the above: the reason for many critical theories and attempted reconstructions of what Jesus said and did go right back to the issue of what Christ predicted was going to happen, and the presuppositions of such scholars determined in large measure what they attributed to Jesus or denied to Him. If liberals across the board turn out to be wrong, as I will argue at length, whether those of the type of Schweitzer who thought Jesus was predicting the end of the world, or those of the sort that comprised the Jesus Seminar who assert that Jesus could not have spoken these words because otherwise he would have engaged in activity that presupposed a supernaturalistic worldview, one that would have been borne out by the events themselves, then that which drives and grounds their fanciful reconstructions of the Biblical accounts crumble as surely as Jerusalem did in A.D. 70.
A final irony that can be mentioned here arises from the fact that Ally’s argument necessarily assumes a pre-A.D. 70 date of composition for the Gospels, a fact that goes very much against the grain of liberal scholarship and Ally’s own stated views on the dates when the New Testament books were written. After all, if the Gospel authors put such predictions back into the mouth of Jesus after the destruction of Jerusalem, an event Ally believes the Synoptists tied in with the personal return of Christ and the end of the world rather than with Christ’s providential coming in judgment to close the Jewish age, then it would not only be the case that the Synoptists ended up turning Jesus into a false prophet; it would mean that the Synoptists knowingly represented Jesus as a false prophet since the world did not in fact end at or right after the destruction of Jerusalem. This is a position so radical that no scholar in their wildest imagination has ever thought to suggest it even on their worst day, for it flies in the face of everything the Gospel writers were obviously trying to convey. Are we really to believe that the same Gospel writers who tell us that Jesus foretold Judas’ betrayal (Matthew 26:20-25; Mark 14:17-21; Luke 22:21-23), Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:31-35; Mark 14:27-31; Luke 22:31-34), and His own death and resurrection (Mark 8:31-33, 10:32-34, 12:1-12; Matthew 12:38-40, 16:21, 17:9-12, 22-23, 20:17-19, 26:1-2; Luke 13:32-33, 18:31-34), which are just some of the many predictions they attribute to Jesus and later say came to pass just as He said, were trying to convince people that Jesus was a false prophet? It is just such an absurdly false notion that Ally’s argument necessarily infers to be the case. The only way out of this conundrum while still maintaining that the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem is to grant that the words the Synoptists attribute to Jesus are being misconstrued as teaching that the end of the world was to be realized at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction, but this would mean Ally would have to forego his argument that the Jesus of the Synoptists is a false prophet.
Before the Fall of Jerusalem
The present writer believes on grounds quite independent from what may be inferred from Ally’s argument that the Gospel accounts were written prior to A.D. 70, but since Ally’s own argument unwittingly assumes this to be the case, no lengthy defense of this view is necessary in this context. Let it be said here, however, to cap off the list of ironies, that one of the most telling evidences for the fact that the Gospels were written prior to A.D. 70 is that they never say anything about the temple’s destruction. This is not an argument from silence but an argument from conspicuous absence. No first century Jew could fail to mention that such an event occurred. Indeed, not even Roman writers failed to mention it. Furthermore, on other occasions when the apostles attributed to Jesus a prediction, they did not hesitate to indicate that His words came to pass and that they were writing after the events in question (e.g. John 2:18-22). They would not have missed the opportunity to say that Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction and that it came to pass just as He said. Moreover, they proclaimed in Jesus the fulfillment of the Temple system (Matthew 12:6, John 1:14-18, 4:4-26). They would most certainly have taken advantage of the Temple’s destruction to drive home the point. What better evidence could they give that that whole system was fulfilled and set aside than that it was completely wiped off the map? When Jesus died, they point out that the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51; Mark 15:37-38; Luke 23:45-46), a curtain that Josephus tells us was so thick that two horses tied to each side of it would not have been able to tear it apart. They would not all have neglected to say that the whole edifice was torn down in that very generation. To think otherwise is not to think at all or is to be under the control of a powerful and deluding bias. So strong is this line of consideration that even the liberal John A. T. Robinson was constrained by it to conclude that every book of the New Testament was written before A.D. 70.
ONE of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in ad 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event. But the silence is nevertheless as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark.
And he lists other scholars who have also felt something of the weightiness of this fact:
As James Moffatt said,
We should expect ... that an event like the fall of Jerusalem would have dinted some of the literature of the primitive church, almost as the victory at Salamis has marked the Persae. It might be supposed that such an epoch-making crisis would even furnish criteria for determining the dates of some of the NT writings. As a matter of fact, the catastrophe is practically ignored in the extant Christian literature of the first century. [J. Moffatt, Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, Edinburgh 31918, 3. This is quoted by L. H. Gaston, No Stone on Another: Studies in the Fall of Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels (Nov Test. Suppl. 23), Leiden 1970, 5, who continues: 'There is no unambiguous reference to the fall of Jerusalem anyplace outside the gospels.']
Similarly C. F. D. Moule:
It is hard to believe that a Judaistic type of Christianity which had itself been closely involved in the cataclysm of the years leading up to ad 70 would not have shown the scars - or, alternatively, would not have made capital out of this signal evidence that they, and not non-Christian Judaism, were the true Israel. But in fact our traditions are silent. [C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 1962, 123.]
Explanations for this silence have of course been attempted. Yet the simplest explanation of all, that perhaps ... there is extremely little in the New Testament later than ad 70 [Moule, op. cit., 121.] and that its events are not mentioned because they had not yet occurred, seems to me to demand more attention than it has received in critical circles.
Bo Reicke begins a recent essay with the words:
An amazing example of uncritical dogmatism in New Testament studies is the belief that the Synoptic Gospels should be dated after the Jewish War of ad 66-70 because they contain prophecies ex eventu of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70. [B. Reicke, 'Synoptic Prophecies on the Destruction of Jerusalem', in D. W. Aune (ed.), Studies in New Testament and Early Christian Literature: Essays in Honor of Alien P. Wikgren (NovTest Suppl. 33), Leiden 1972, 121-34.] (John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (1976), p. 14-16)
Besides the above and the many other reasons that could be given for viewing the synoptic Gospels (and other writings of the New Testament) as pre-A.D. 70 compositions, since the Old Testament also teaches the same things that we will see were taught in an expansive way by Jesus – i.e. that His coming would signal the establishment of the New Covenant and the collapse of the Old, along with the Temple and the ceremonial law which served as a scaffolding for the New – which surely predates the events leading up to and culminating in Jerusalem’s destruction; and since the teachings of the apostle Paul, which do not differ an iota in this regard from what Jesus taught, whose writings also surely predate A.D. 70 since Paul sealed his testimony with his blood under Nero who committed suicide in A.D. 68; there simply is no escaping the definitive proof that the destruction of the temple serves as a vindication of Jesus as the Divine Son of Man to whom all honor belongs, whom all men are bound to worship, whose authority is eternal, and whose kingdom will never be destroyed but will continue to grow until it fills the whole earth.
So that Christian readers might know something of the reason why I agree that Jesus in the Olivet discourse was clearly speaking of something that was to happen in the first century, Part II will focus on the question of when these things would be, though it will at points involve some comments that are more or less relevant to what it was Jesus was prophesying. Part III will then primarily address the second issue––what it was Jesus was predicting and how His words were perfectly fulfilled in the first century, though once again some remarks will also be relevant to the when question. In the nature of the case these two issues are involved in one another and impossible to separate completely. A final installment, Part IV, will turn the tables on Ally, showing that while Jesus perfectly predicted these things in advance, Ally’s false prophet could not even get them right after the facts. And if Jesus (and/or the apostles) accurately predicted these things in advance while Muhammad couldn’t even accurately recount them after the fact, then it naturally follows that Christ’s (and/or the apostles’) interpretation of the meaning and significance of these events carries the day.
I declared the former things long ago and they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them. Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead bronze, therefore I declared them to you long ago, before they took place I proclaimed them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol has done them’… (Isaiah 43:8)
Suffice it to say, if he stays the course, this is going to be one taxi ride Ally will not like.
[Continue to Part IIa]