A lot of Christians are confused, and some are even troubled, by biblical prophecy. It seems really hard to understand—what’s with those wheels that Ezekiel saw? and how do you get seven heads and ten horns on a beast? Other Christians are troubled by the fact that nobody can seem to agree on how things are supposed to turn out. Some people have been predicting the Rapture for decades now—and they’ve been wrong every time. And others, who look like perfectly good Christians, chuckle, “Rapture, huh? You don’t really believe that, do you?”
There’s a reason for all this. And when you understand it—the reason, not the prophecies—you’ll realize that there’s really nothing to be upset about.
Let me see if I can clarify some things.
I should begin by defining what I’m talking about. When I say “prophecy,” I’m talking about biblical predictions, places where the Bible says that something’s going to happen in the future. Technically, everything the Bible says is “prophecy,” in the sense that it’s a message from God to humans, delivered through mouthpieces, prophets. But here I’m using the word more narrowly.
The Bible does make a lot of predictions. The first one is in Gen 3.15, where God predicts that “the seed of the woman” will crush the serpent’s head. The last one is Jesus’ statement, “Surely I come quickly,” in Rev 22.20. And there are a lot of them in between.
We can sort them into 2 groups—those that have been fulfilled, and those that haven’t. A great many of those that have been fulfilled are about just 2 events—the exiles of Israel (especially the exile of Judah to Babylon and back) and the first coming of Christ. It can be instructive to study how those prophecies were stated and then how they were fulfilled; I think that study serves as a kind of lab for how we should expect other prophecies to be fulfilled (more on that later).
Most of the ones that haven’t been fulfilled are about the end times—what we call eschatology. And there is where most of the disagreement is among biblical scholars and among everyday Christians.
So why all the disagreement?
I would suggest that it springs primarily from the way God has chosen to give his prophecies.
In short, they’re really hard to understand.
Note that I’ve said that this is “the way God has chosen” to speak to us about these things. The fact that the predictions are obscure is not some kind of defect in God’s ability to communicate, some failure on his part. And I don’t think it’s a problem with our ability to understand, either.
Why do I say that? Because there are all kinds of statements in the Scripture that we understand perfectly well. God can speak clearly when he wants to, and he is completely justified in holding us accountable for those things. He’s told us who we are, where we came from, who he is, and how we can have a relationship with him. These things are clear, and life and death hang on our responding rightly to what he has clearly told us.
But when we cross over into predictive prophecy, it seems as though everything just goes a little crazy. Suddenly we’re knitting our eyebrows, furrowing our foreheads, shaking our heads. Wheel in a wheel in a wheel, indeed.
This stuff is hard. Charles Hodge, the great Princeton theologian of the 19th century, said frankly that nobody was qualified to interpret biblical prophecy unless he’d spent an entire lifetime doing so—and since he, Hodge, hadn’t, he wasn’t going to make any authoritative pronouncements.
So here’s my thesis.
Biblical prophecy is intentionally designed to be difficult to understand before the time of fulfillment—but to be quite clear afterwards.
God has decided, for reasons of his own, to speak this way. I’ll speculate later on a possible reason for that, but for now I’d like to spend a few posts demonstrating
- that my thesis is true,
- that it explains the current diversity of views about the end times, and
- that it gives us some guidance on how we ought to study and apply these matters.
(If you’re expecting me to finish the series by telling you when Jesus is coming back, you’re going to be disappointed.)
See you next time.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash