Sep 10, 2008 by Craig Blomberg | 8 Comments
The collective amnesia of Christians who are eager to correlate current events with biblical prophecy never ceases to amaze me. Jesus taught clearly that no one knows the day or hour of his return (Mark 13:32). As if to forestall the silliness of some who have claimed to be able to know the year, because that was a broader span of time than a day or hour, he added in Acts 1:7, "It is not for you to know the times or dates the father has set by his own authority." "Dates" could also be translated "seasons." The two words for time in this verse (chronos and kairos) are the two most general terms for time in Hellenistic Greek. They should teach us not to claim to know a year, or a decade, or a generation, or a century, or a millennium!
In fact, given all the biblical texts about Christ's return coming like a thief in the night, catching people by surprise, occurring when run-of-the-mill activity is proceeding normally, and the like, it's tempting to say that when a particular year draws unusual attention from one swath of Christians as the supposedly probable time for Christ's return, that very attention makes it even less likely to be the true time.
Even on sheer probabilistic grounds, the odds of being able to guess correctly the timing of the end is infinitesimally miniscule. Bernard McGinn's Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994; New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) traces all the different predictions about who the Antichrist would be and when and how the end of this age would come throughout church history. It is a fascinating book indeed, but the account is also a little depressing. Hundreds of failed predictions dot the centuries yet, with every new interesting cluster of current events that ingenious minds can find some way of linking with Scriptural texts, far too many people forget this one simple truth: to date, 100% of all predictions about the timing of the end have proved false! Surely that should teach us to give up the exercise altogether.
But no, we're told in the news recently that premier end-times fiction writer Tim LaHaye is pretty sure that the end will come within eighty years. At least he's a bit more modest than his predecessor, Hal Lindsey, who used to speak of one generation after the foundation of the state of Israel (1948) and who, in separate contexts, described a generation as no more than forty years. 1988 came and went, notwithstanding the remarkable booklet published early in that year by a retired NASA scientist on eighty-eight reasons Christ would come back in 1988. I've heard other Christians try to salvage Lindsey's prophecy by saying that it was really 1967 from which the forty years should be counted, because only after the Six-Day War in that year did Israel occupy all the land. But 2007 has now come and gone as well.
Doesn't anybody remember that great Y2K non-event? And six of the ten best-selling Christian books of "non-fiction" (the category has obviously become quite broad) at one point in 1999 predicted how the earth-shattering debacles beginning on January 1, 2000 would herald the beginning of the end. Thank goodness we don't stone Christians for false prophecy like the ancient Israelites were supposed to.
So now I'm teaching at a local church and a man asks me if I've heard about how 2012 is a key year in the Mayan calendar, ending one long cycle of time and inaugurating a new one. He wonders if that could tie in with biblical prophecy and notes that it will be the end of President Obama's first term in office. The bloggers are quite taken with the topic, he assures me. I checked; they are! Interesting that he (they?) know(s) the outcome of the election before it's happened! But the media also note that Tim LaHaye has assured us Obama cannot be the Antichrist, because nowhere in the Bible is the Antichrist linked to the United States.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Of course, there's nothing about the Antichrist linked to the U.S. or to Australia or to Uruguay or to Zimbabwe or to Sweden or to the Seychelles. Nobody in biblical times and places even knew those locations existed, and it would have made sense to no one to talk about a part of the planet that no one had ever heard of. But if that's what it takes to delete at least one piece of the smear campaign against Obama, then I guess I should be glad. (I wonder if anyone watching the two weeks of political conventions computed the amount of time spent by all speakers put together talking positively about what they or their candidates would try to do if elected, with any specificity. I'm guessing it was about ten percent of the time.)
But even more distressing is the fact that Christians should give any credence to a pagan calendar. What on earth does that have to do with understanding Christian revelation? It's utterly irrelevant.
End-times prophecy in Scripture was given for one main reason: to promote alert, consistent, faithful Christian living, because the end could come at any time. See especially the whole sweep of parables in Matthew 24:37-25:46 immediately after Matthew's account of Christ's teaching about no one knowing the time of the end (24:36). If anyone has completely obeyed all of Christ's commands to faithful living, evangelism, discipleship, social action, deeds of mercy, and so on, perhaps they may have the freedom to indulge in a little end-times speculation (though I doubt it). But until then, let's leave all the works of fiction on Christian prophecy shelves behind and get about the real work of the kingdom.