Christians don’t really know how to handle Biblical prophecy. A minority tradition in the Church tends to claim the events related in it will ‘come true’ next Wednesday morning when we’re sitting down to our Corn Flakes. The entertainment value when these predictions, inevitably, don’t come to pass perhaps explains why this tiny minority has tended to have the most publicity over the past two millennia. A brief scan of church history will confirm that abusing Biblical prophecy to promote nonsense – and often politically motivated, violent, nonsense – did not begin with the Left Behind novels.
The majority Christian tradition tends to avoid the subject of prophecy as much as possible, in part because it is put off by the craziness spouted by the publicity seekers, but perhaps also because Bible prophecy is anything but cosy. Prophecy describes God’s purposes being brought to fruition in a vortex of death and destruction, at a time people will wish they had never been born – where being a Christian won’t be the lucky charm against suffering we like to pretend it is, but a magnet attracting it. Rather than locating the events of prophecy in the near future as the lunatic fringe does, most of us prefer to keep them in the distant past, usually the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the persecutions of Christians under mad, bad, Emperor Nero.
Either option locates the truth of prophecy somewhere comfortable for us, where we won’t stand in the path of the deluge when it arrives. Either it all happened a long time ago, or we’re the good guys who’ll prevail in the end and reign with Jesus very soon now.
The harder possibility is that prophecy is always true. We understand the word prophecy as a euphemism for ‘crystal-ball gazing’, instead of what it truly is: an assessment of what must eventually come to pass, based on applying a Christian understanding of how the world works to the events of the day. We are not as distant from the Iron Age patriarchs as we like to think we are – this is why the cries for justice made to them by Amos and Micah continue to resonate until today. Human nature does not change, and so those with power, temporally and spiritually, continue to behave as those with power always have.
There are places in the world today, as there always have been, where Christ’s terrifying Holy Week warnings of the end times are simply a mundane description of the daily reality. “Alas for women with child in those days, and for those who have children at the breast!” Alas for the women of Aleppo and the shanty-towns of Ciudad Juarez. Alas for those forced to flee Iraq, or Somalia, or the more fractured parts of Colombia, not at the sound of a trumpet but the crack of a gunshot. From the gas chambers of Treblinka to the butchers’ sheds of Kigali, the end of the world has already happened a thousand times.
The Christian West has had a long run of relative comfort and dominance, effectively since the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312. Take a moment to let that enormous era sink in – 1,800 years is a period almost beyond our comprehension. We are more distant from Constantine than he was from the Bronze Age.
In that vast span of time, what fruit have we brought the Lord? Some have undoubtedly borne Him a rich harvest, many of them humble and supposedly ‘unimportant’ people whose faith and sacrifice is now known only to God.
Along with that has come an awful lot of sin, where we Christians have been the victimisers of the tortured women or the fleeing refugees. Too often, the Cross has been abused as a weapon to beat down anyone in the way of our greed for land or gold. To take just the most extreme example, the virtual annihilation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia remains one of the great crimes of history, so bloody that it cries out of from the ground. It would be easy to blame it all on the powerful, but ordinary people were happy to pile in for a few quid or a hundred acre plot. The Churches had a deeply compromised record in those events; for every Christian struggling for justice, there were many more who stood idly by or actively connived in brutality and dispossession, the creation of a hell on earth considered a price worth paying to get the heathen into heaven.
We are naïve in the extreme to think that our societies do not stand under God’s judgement. All of earth’s proud empires will pass away – our own civilisation will one day be as much a ruin as Ozymandias’ disembodied legs and shattered face. When will it happen? Only God knows – “Keep awake then, for you do not know on what day your Lord comes.”
The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though medical technology means they may last a decade or two more, for all of us, time is short and the end will come soon. The world as we know it is passing away. We must be about our Father’s business.