Human beings are endlessly curious about the future. Wall Street wants to know economic trends. Pollsters want to figure out political trends. Gossip magazines want to know relational trends, and so it goes. Human beings are always looking to the horizon, and wondering what’s coming next. Sometimes this has led to overly rosy proclamations about how technology and science are going to solve all our problems. On the other hand it has also led to overly pessimistic predictions as well. Of course some human beings have always been willing to go for the jackpot and engage in theological weather forecasting, telling us what God has in store next, and when he intends to bring it about. Of course there has been a tiny problem with such predictions— they’ve all had a 100% failure rate when they tried to pin God down to a set time table.
You would think that with that kind of track record, people would just stop trying to predict when God is going to do what, but in fact that is not the case. I remember watching a religious broadcast as the year 2,000 was upon us and sure enough there was one of those proud prognosticators telling a TV personality that Jesus was without a doubt coming back exactly 2,000 years after he first appeared on planet earth. There was just one tiny problem— this prognosticator had not done his historical homework. Had he done so he would have realized that Jesus was born somewhere between 2-6 B.C. In other words, by his calculations, Jesus was already late on arrival and his calculations were all wrong!! Shoot even ordinary sane TV personalities couldn’t even get straight when the 21rst century started. News flash– every century begins with the year 1 and runs to the year 100. This means that the year 2,000 was not the first year of the new millennium, it was the last year of the previous one! But I digress.
What I am about to tell you, you may find discouraging, but it is nonetheless true. God has quite deliberately not given us enough specific information that any such calculations of the precise timing of the return of Christ could be made. Apocalyptic literature like Daniel and Revelation deliberately use symbolic numbers like 7 and half of 7 and multiples of 10 (the 1,000 year reign), or 12 (the 144,000 saints) which are not intended to be treated like numbers in a math equation. We really can’t crunch the numbers and come up with even an approximate date, and that was not the intent of such symbolic numbers anyway. The intent was to tell us that in God’s good time he would act (we cannot force his hand), that God has it well in hand, and that in regard to periods of suffering and trial, they will not last forever. There will however be no exemption of the last generation of believers on earth from suffering before Christ returns. They will not be beamed up. They will persevere through the trial, like every generation of believers before them, and God will shorten the time of suffering so the saints will endure. No Virginia, there is not going to be a rapture or beam me up Scotty moment towards the end. Why should there be when even today, as in all previous generations, Christians have suffered and been martyred? Why should we think we might be exempt from such things when Jesus is still calling his disciples in all generations to ‘take up your crosses and follow me to Golgotha’? As Bonhoeffer once said ‘when Christ calls you, he bids you to come and die’.
So what about all that discussion of the final future in the OT and NT? What is the point, and what does it reveal? My answer is simply– God reveals enough about the future to give us hope, so that we may have great expectations, but not so much that we could reduce these prophecies to a basis for calculations or prognostications. Great expectations yes— God will come back in the person of his Son, God will resolve the human dilemma, God will bring about a new creation, God will raise us from the dead and place us in this new creation, God will judge the living and dead, and so on. What God will not do is give us a time table.
Had we a time table, even an approximate one, then we would not have to live by faith every day. We could say things like— ‘well the world is going to keep rolling along for about another ten years so, I’ve got ten years to sow my wild oats, get stinking rich, live it up, sin in haste, and then repent before the parousia’. It is in fact better to say, since we don’t know when Jesus will return we must be like the earliest Christians— saints standing on tiptoe expecting Jesus possibly in our own life times, so we must always be ready. The uncertainty of the timing in fact fuels the need to always be prepared, and live in the shadow of the parousia and hold all the things of this world lightly, tentatively, for as Paul says ‘the form of this world is passing away’ with all its schemes and schemas, all its fashion and fads, all its institutions and nations.
So get up each morning with great expectations— it is the fact of Christ’s return, not the timing which should shape our worldview, the way we view life and the future. Every day should be seen as day where the future is cloudy, but with a chance of imminent parousia.