The limits of reading current events into biblical prophecy.

For twentieth-century Christians, prognostication about the End has inspired a vast host of sermons, charts, and films. The coming threshold of another millennium promises to add even more fuel to countdown speculations. CT plans to return to the topic periodically, providing varied perspectives. Here a Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.) professor scrutinizes the claims of contemporary prophecy popularizers.

If our children should ever read the twentieth-century’s best-selling books on prophecy, they will learn an important lesson. They will understand, perhaps better than any generation, the perils of trying to make Scripture’s prophetic passages fit into the grid of current or expected events.

It is a lesson the church has been slow to learn. Throughout this century, a seemingly endless succession of forecasters has come and gone. Fifty years ago the most prolific was Leonard Sale-Harrison, an Australian-born Bible teacher. Preaching throughout North America and writing three best sellers, Sale-Harrison matched the prophecies of Daniel with events surrounding Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

How could anyone miss the fulfillment of biblical prophecies as Il Duce began reviving the Roman Empire—encompassing Spain, Austria, the Balkans, and the Middle East—while attempting to rearm Italy, rebuild Rome, and place himself at the center of a state cult? Furthermore, when the “Bank of Italy, U.S.A.” became an international organization and it was reported that the fascist emblem appeared on U.S. coins, Sale-Harrison was ready to predict that 1940 or 1941 would mark the beginning of the Day of the Lord. If World War II is what Sale-Harrison had in mind, he was right: It was the greatest tribulation this world has ever seen. But Sale-Harrison was wrong: Mussolini was assassinated and the Roman Empire never revived.

Will our children conclude that we were similarly naive to interpret biblical prophecies in the light of current events? Israel’s rebirth as a nation in 1948, some argued, portended the Second Coming within a generation, at the latest by 1988. The addition of the tenth member of the European Common Market meant the revival of the Roman Empire and the climax of Daniel’s prophecies. (The European Economic Community now includes 12 countries, with one application pending and others expected.)

Coupled with these supposedly irrefutable signs were many other predictions: The Soviet Union will invade Israel from the north; an Arab-African confederacy headed by Egypt will invade Israel from the south; and the locusts of the Apocalypse will in reality be Cobra helicopters equipped with nerve gas sprayed from their tails.

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Unfortunately, Christians are likely to continue in such attempts to extract scenes of the future from prophecy. As long as they choose to ignore the primary message of prophecy and fail to recognize God’s past methods of fulfilling prophecy, they will continue to be trapped in the web of predicting the when and the how of the end times.

The folly of foresight

Trying to fit details of biblical prophecy together like pieces of a puzzle may seem like an appropriately pious project. Upon closer inspection, however, the Bible reveals it to be a misguided and misleading endeavor. New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce observed, “Holy Writ does not provide us with the means of plotting the course of future events.” The primary point of prophecy is to assure readers that God is going to accomplish his plans, in unique and amazing ways. Its function is both to warn and comfort, not assuage our curiosity about what the next year will hold. This is demonstrated by many passages in the Bible.

Daniel’s apocalypses provide a good illustration of how God uses prophecy. In one vision, a single, large horn of a goat is broken off and replaced by four horns. When the symbolism is interpreted for Daniel by the angel Gabriel, Daniel learns that the large horn is the first king of Greece and the four horns represent four nations that emerge from his nation (Dan. 8:8, 21–22). This all seems simple enough, except that a reader of this prophecy would not have been able to predict how it would be fulfilled. Athens or Sparta would have been the likely power to unite Greece under one kingdom, certainly not the supposedly uncivilized Macedonians in the north. And the four kingdoms would then have been understood as four regions of Greece.

Radical changes in Greece in the following centuries, however, rearranged the political situation, eventually leaving Greece vulnerable to the growing power to the north. Surprisingly, both for the Greeks and for the readers of Daniel’s prophecies, it was Alexander the Great’s father, Philip, who burst into Greece and united it as one kingdom, making himself commander and leader.

Upon the assassination of Philip, Alexander succeeded his father. The next 11 years changed the course of world history as Alexander conquered the whole Persian empire, stretching from Greece south to Egypt and east to India.

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Without ever making it back to Greece, Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C. Unfortunately, his generals could not agree on a successor, and for the next several decades, comrades fought among themselves for at least a portion of what Alexander had conquered. Alexander the Great’s kingdom was eventually divided into several major and minor monarchies.

With the juxtaposition of the apocalypses of Daniel and their fulfillment largely in historical events, it becomes clear that an attempt at interpretation could not have anticipated what these prophecies were really predicting. The first ruler to unite Greece and lead the league of city-states came from Macedonia, not from Athens or Sparta. Alexander was not the first ruler, at least chronologically, although in retrospect it is evident why he might be referred to as the “first” or foremost ruler. The kingdoms that emerged following Alexander’s death were not regions of Greece but kingdoms previously not under Greek control. And most significantly, commentators do not agree on precisely how Alexander’s kingdom was divided into four parts.

An attempt to pinpoint in advance the details of this part of Daniel’s vision, then, would have been doomed to fail. This becomes clear with other portions of the apocalypses of Daniel. For example, the prophecy of the 70 weeks in Daniel 9:24–27 and the details about the king of the North and the king of the South in Daniel 11 are replete with apocalyptic allusions that are not always completely understood, even with hindsight, much less foresight.

Solving the puzzle

If biblical prophecies were not given as picture windows looking out on the future, why does the Bible include predictive prophecy?

Although interpreters must withhold judgment on many specifics of prophecy, unambiguous prophetic themes abound throughout Scripture, centering on the second coming of Jesus the Messiah. Even as there was a first advent, there will be a second one: It may be soon, or it may be far off, but it will happen. Associated with Jesus’ return will be a concentration of cataclysmic phenomena. And the ultimate purpose of Christ’s return will be restoration: Humanity’s separation from God as a result of sin will be canceled by means of a final judgment on sin and a change both of people and their environment. Jesus will finally be Lord of all. God’s triumph is certain.

We do not need to speculate about the color of the eyes of the Antichrist to know that he is evil and that the Lamb of God will be victorious over him. We do need to understand the nature and purpose of biblical prophecy, for prophecy is as vital to the purposes of Scripture as water is to the earth’s atmosphere. We see this in several ways.

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First, it is often in retrospect or in the present that biblical prophecies achieve their greatest importance. This in no way diminishes prophecy’s value. Were it not for the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus, his followers may not have believed. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he twice gave them an important perspective on all that he was saying to them: “I am telling you this now before it happens so that when it does happen you will believe that I am he” (John 13:19; see also 14:29; Matt. 24:25). Much of the detail in biblical prophecy, then, is not intended to reveal the future as much as it is intended to confirm and explicate the past, or illumine the present.

Ask any of Jesus’ disciples if they understood before Jesus’ death the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Ask, for example, the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). It took a personal lesson from Jesus himself to help them understand how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.

This was the experience of all who came in contact with Jesus. Even John the Baptist—who was given divine insight into who Jesus was—could not harmonize what he expected the Messiah to do with what Jesus actually was doing. From prison John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah or if they should look for someone else. If this gifted and Spirit-filled prophet failed to grasp the significance of the prophecies about the Messiah fulfilled before his very eyes, should not every follower of Christ be cautious about announcing in advance how prophecy will be fulfilled?

This is Peter’s point about the Old Testament prophets and their prophecies of the coming salvation (1 Pet. 1:10–12). The prophets wanted to know when and how the Messiah would suffer and be glorified. However, they received details of the future not to serve themselves but to confirm for future believers the authenticity of Christ’s coming.

Second, more than just a description of “the finish line,” prophecy puts the complete circuit of history into perspective. It reveals God’s agenda in the past and for the future. If we will spend eternity demonstrating our praise to the victorious Lamb, if in eternity the church will be united in one glorious body, if justice and righteousness will characterize eternity, then we have a clear sense of what God wants from us even now.

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After describing the disappearance of the heavens and the melting down of the earth, Peter asks the rhetorical question, “What kind of people ought you to be?” He answers, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Pet. 3:11–12). The promise that we will be like Jesus, although we do not fully understand what that means, gives a clear focus for how we should live until that time (1 John 3:2).

Third, while prediction is not the primary purpose of prophecy, it is an integral part of prophecy. By the announcement of unexpected and striking events in the future, hearers are moved out of their immediate and troubled worlds into a future experience of otherworldy images and events. This is the essence of the apocalyptic genre. In the Book of Revelation, the marvelous descriptions of vivid and figurative images are not intended to give us details about the future but to encourage us with the news that heaven and the future are unlike anything on this earth. For Christians facing persecution, it is comforting to know that they can look forward to something far better than what this world has to offer.

Fourth, and most important, the central focus of prophecy is the Son of God. Everything about the future is designed to make Jesus Christ preeminent. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, from Creation to the climax of history, everything revolves around Jesus as Messiah and victorious conqueror. Unfortunately, speculations about the course of future events have nearly eclipsed the Messiah as the central figure of prophecy. But the real point of prophecy is to show how Christ will once again be the revelation of God in all his majesty and splendor.

Prophecy, then, focuses attention away from the present world to a new world where Christ will finally reign in power and glory. Jesus will return. Jesus will claim the victory over evil. Jesus will restore this earth and his people to God’s original design.

But at a time when interest in prophecy is running high, many Christians crave more than the general framework of future events. They want an explanation of how current events can be adapted into their particular school of prophetic interpretation. For these Christians, the future has become a Land of Oz, full of fascinating creatures and unexpected events surrounded by a wall that must be scaled. The temptation to spy on the future seems irresistible.

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Prophecy is not intended to lay bare particulars of the future but to invade the present. Our children must learn that what the Bible says about the future is to help them live expectantly, righteously, and patiently now. It is only for our heavenly Father to know how and when he will present his Son as the victorious Lamb of the universe.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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