“We don’t yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” - 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, The Message
I found an interesting book at Goodwill the other day. It’s a theological companion of sorts to the hugely popular Left Behind series called Are We Living in the End Times?. If you’re familiar at all with the Left Behind series, then you can probably guess how this book answers the question posed in its title. Thankfully, unlike their spiritual godfather Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don’t try to set any firm dates for Christ’s return. They're content with the much safer premise that “we have more reason than any generation before us to believe He will come in our generation” (xi).
The argument LaHaye and Jenkins make in support of their premise is pretty standard fare. It consists mostly of cherry-picking prophetic texts like Daniel 12:4, Ezekiel 47, and Matthew 24:14 and relating them directly to contemporary events like the technological revolution, the reemergence of Israel, and the advance of the gospel. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the authorial intent or historical context of those verses. They are simply lifted from their native environment and applied confidently, imperialistically, to our generation. “Hardly anyone doubts that ours is a day when people are ‘running to and fro’ and knowledge has increased” (x).
This is nothing new, of course. Ever since the late second century charismatic teachers on the fringe of the Christian faith have gathered followers by claiming that they were living in the last (and, by implication, the most important) generation in history. Only in the last two centuries has this idea come into the mainstream, however, thanks mostly to the influence of John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible. Given that the Left Behind series has sold 63 million copies and is now a major motion picture starring Nicolas Cage, it looks like the mass appeal of this pseudo-biblical eschatology has yet to die off.
I might take a series of posts soon to address some of the most popular reasons for thinking that this is the last generation and why that’s not actually what the biblical texts are referring to. But first I want to address a larger problem which feeds and supports this booming industry of end-times speculation. This is the problem of egocentrism.
We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who doesn’t have the patience or empathy to hear us out because they think they already know what we’re going to say before we say it. If we’re honest, we’ve probably been that person on more than one occasion. It takes tremendous effort to step outside of ourselves, to lay down our own expectations and preconceived ideas, and just listen to someone on their own terms. But that’s what we do when we love someone. In the same way, when we come to the words of God in Scripture, our first priority should not be to get something for ourselves or to find confirmation for what we think it should say, but to simply listen, without agenda, to what the text says. Far from being a dry or clinical discipline, biblical exegesis should be the natural outflow of a loving heart.
If we come to God’s word on its own terms, however, we are bound to discover two hard but ultimately liberating truths. First, the Bible wasn't written to us. It was written to people who lived between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago in an environment very different from our own. Second, the Bible isn’t mostly about us—at least, not directly anyway. The Bible is mostly about Jesus, and it invites us to see Jesus’ story as our story, to reshape our lives around his life. Too often, though, we come to the Bible with the expectation that it should speak directly to us and about us, that it should conform to us instead of us conforming to it.
This is why there is often so much unhealthy obsession with biblical prophecy. If the last 2,000 years of failed end-time predictions tells us anything, it’s that we desperately want the Bible to be about us. As Andrew Jackson says it, "the topic of eschatology, especially when it is sensationalized and set as a backdrop to the daily news, can easily appeal to our unhealthy heart motives and ambitions, just as fortune telling, horoscopes, and even spiritual channeling attract non-Christians." We create new "signs of the times" to fit current events and create lists of reasons why our generation is the last generation, the most important generation, the generation the Bible talks about the most. Paul defines prophecy as peering through a glass darkly, but we somehow manage to find our own face on every opaque surface.
The only way to overcome our fallen tendency toward a self-centered reading of Scripture is to have our thinking renewed by the self-giving love of Christ, who “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). It’s no coincidence that Paul’s pastoral instruction regarding the use of prophecy is also the most extensive description of Christian love in the New Testament (1 Cor. 13:1-13). What does a mature Christian love look like when applied to the art of biblical interpretation? Answer: Love does not seek its own. As N. T. Wright says it, “Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73).
Behind all of this is the recognition that God didn’t speak in a vacuum; he spoke to real people in real time and space, and we hear his word by listening to their words. At its root, then, the act of reading Scripture is an act of empathy: it requires us to step outside of ourselves, outside of our own time and space and likes and dislikes, and into the time and space of others. This is hard to do, not because it requires a special kind of intelligence but because it requires a special kind of love, the kind of love that drives a man to lay down his life for his friends.
This self-giving, others-centered kind of love lies at the heart of the Christian view of everything, not least a Christian view of the future. We must replace our egocentric eschatology with a hermeneutic of love. We must write the words “love does not seek its own” on the doorway of our hearts so that every time we come to God’s word our ears will be open to the story he is telling, not the story we want to hear. Only by affirming and celebrating the “other-than-self reality” of God’s word, by counting everything as loss for the sake of knowing Christ and becoming like him in his death—only then will his story become our story.