Recently, Andrew Perriman made the provocative statement that “distant future” views of eschatology keep us from prophetically and apocalyptically engaging with our present, which is something he claims eschatological language was intended to do. This is, he says, a “failure of nerve” on behalf of the church, today. All that eschatological stuff is end of history stuff, many might say, but this would be in contrast to Jesus and Paul who used such language to describe the trajectory of their present circumstances that would work out in the future, but in the near future. Their eschatology was a description of current events and where these events would lead, their hopes for God’s intervention, and what the ramifications were for life now in light of these soon to come events.
I largely agree with that, but I’ve had a few different conversations recently that remind me that the key premise there is highly contested in Christian circles: was the eschatology and apocalyptism of the early church primarily about their relatively immediate future expectations of what would play out on the world stage, or were they “end of the world” expectations slated for some indeterminate point in the future?
In order to give an example for us to consider, I’d like to turn to the Old Testament – for several reasons, really, but the most important one to this discussion is that the Old Testament has prophetic and apocalyptic descriptions of things that have already happened.
One example I like to use is Isaiah 34 – a prophecy of the destruction of Edom:
Draw near, O nations, to hear;
O peoples, give heed!
Let the earth hear, and all that fills it;
the world, and all that comes from it.
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
and furious against all their hordes;
he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out,
and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
like a leaf withering on a vine,
or fruit withering on a fig tree.
When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
lo, it will descend upon Edom,
upon the people I have doomed to judgment.
The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood,
it is gorged with fat,
with the blood of lambs and goats,
with the fat of the kidneys of rams.
For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah,
a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
Wild oxen shall fall with them,
and young steers with the mighty bulls.
Their land shall be soaked with blood,
and their soil made rich with fat.
For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of vindication by Zion’s cause.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it;
the owl and the raven shall live in it.
He shall stretch the line of confusion over it,
and the plummet of chaos over its nobles.
They shall name it No Kingdom There,
and all its princes shall be nothing.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
an abode for ostriches.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
and find a place to rest.
There shall the owl nest
and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow;
there too the buzzards shall gather,
each one with its mate.
Seek and read from the book of the Lord:
Not one of these shall be missing;
none shall be without its mate.
For the mouth of the Lord has commanded,
and his spirit has gathered them.
He has cast the lot for them,
his hand has portioned it out to them with the line;
they shall possess it forever,
from generation to generation they shall live in it.
In the first bit, we have the image of all the “host of heaven” withering away and the sky being rolled up like a scroll. When God has finished destroying the sky, he will level a sword against Edom that will kill them and their livestock. Their rivers will be turned into pitch and the soil to sulfur and the land will be turned into a burning wasteland whose fires will never go out.
Edom was destroyed in the sixth century B.C. by Babylon, not too long after this prophecy was likely made (somewhere between the mid-700s and 600s B.C.). After this, the Edomites who remained were pushed out of territories where they’d settle, harassed by other nations and armies, becoming a small, wandering people who took the wrong side in the Jewish Wars and just disappeared as a distinct people after that.
However, the land that Edom occupied is not currently on fire. Smoke is not going up from her. The rivers are not pitch and the soil is not sulfur. Also, the sky was not destroyed in the sixth century B.C. Also, there was nothing overtly supernatural about the whole thing – it was another army at work.
So, the way I see it, we have three, basic options:
One, the prophecy is wrong. People expected God would tear the sky apart and turn Edom into a sulfuric, flaming wasteland for ever, and this clearly didn’t happen. This just shows how gullible ancient people were and is evidence for how unreliable the Bible is, or at least how unreliable anything like “prophecy” is.
Two, the prophecy is correct but has not happened yet. At some point in the future, Edom will be reestablished and God will destroy it in a manner that more literally matches the imagery – perhaps in a nuclear war. We should all be on the lookout for a new Edom or current events that might somehow tie to the restoration of Edom, as this will be a sign of the end times.
Three, the prophecy is correct, but the imagery is not meant to be understood as a literal description of what would happen. Rather, it vividly communicates the thorough extent of Edom’s destruction and the impact this would have on the world stage. Edom was destroyed and their power was shattered and the world for them and their neighbors was never the same after that. The literal descriptions didn’t happen, but nobody was literally expecting them to happen in the first place. They are meant to describe world-shaking political events, but ones that do not involve the sky being destroyed or something set on fire forever, and the somewhat more mundane versions of these things actually happened.
Personally, I find option three to be likely. We had a prophecy full of destroyed skies and stars killed with a sword and eternal fires and rivers of pitch – and in history, this nation was more or less wiped off the board as a power within a hundred years or two of the prophecy and eventually dwindled into nobody. The prophecy was imagery describing that event and its impact.
If this is so, then it stands to reason that the apocalyptic perspectives of Jesus and Paul and John (and Ringo) would work in a similar way. They are speaking of things within the radar of a few hundred years that occur on the world stage, and they are using images that are not necessarily intended to communicate a literal play by play of events that could only describe the end of the world. They are doing this so that the people who are hearing them would understand their own times, have hope for the future, and know what they needed to do right now as they lived with those expectations.
If this is so, then why aren’t we doing it?
I know that there’s some leeriness to this because of all the end of the world predictions that have not come to pass or hyper-charismatic predictions about Donald Trump that he would cure cancer and shoot lasers from his eyes.
But keep in mind that prophecy in the Bible is neither used to discuss the end of the world nor unmistakably supernatural events. They are used to discuss the threats that the people of God face in their age and how they believe God will respond to those threats and what practical implications this has for how they conduct themselves in the world. The hopes for the future are used to shape an engagement with the present, which is the whole reason eschatological teachings are given to a people – they are meant to do something with it, and it’s not holing up in a bunker waiting for the world to end.